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sexual harassment, workplace discrimination, workplace discrimination cases
Jim Cole/AP
U.S. Supreme Court Justice David
Souter

US Supreme Court Rules on Employer Retaliation Case

January 27, 2009 02:02 PM
by Lindsey Chapman
On Jan. 26, the United States Supreme Court ruled that employers cannot punish an employee who participates in a workplace investigation.

Supreme Court Stands Behind Worker

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The United States Supreme Court has taken fresh steps toward protecting employees who make harassment or discrimination claims in their workplace.

In 2002, Vicky Crawford, a former payroll manager for the Metro school district in Tennessee, claimed she had been a victim of sexual harassment.
 
The district was investigating separate sexual harassment claims against Gene Hughes, director of employee relations, at the time.

When questioned, Crawford said she had been subjected to advances by Hughes as well, The Tennessean reported.

No action was taken against Hughes, but Crawford lost her job once employers also began checking irregularities in the payroll and fired her for alleged embezzlement. Hughes eventually resigned after it became apparent that he had falsified his credentials.

Crawford sued, saying she was fired because of her claims against Hughes, but the United States District Court in Nashville dismissed the case because she had not directly filed formal charges against him.

“The central question in the case is whether Crawford is protected under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 from retaliation by senior managers after informally accusing a senior manager of sexual harassment,” The Christian Science Monitor wrote.

Crawford’s lawyers said the harassment investigation already underway gave her that right, while lawyers for her former employer said no. The Sixth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals also ruled against Crawford, saying that simply complying with a harassment investigation was not “sufficient ‘opposition’ to the harassment” on her part, according to The Wall Street Journal Law Blog.
 
In the Supreme Court ruling, Justice Souter stated that lower courts would establish “a freakish rule protecting an employee who reports discrimination on her own initiative but not one who reports the same discrimination in the same words when her boss asks a question.”

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Fear of Sexual Harassment Cases

The fear of making a sexual harassment claim appears to be very real for many workers in the United States. Studies indicate that 62 percent of state employees worry about being fired, transferred, losing a promotion or receiving a poor job evaluation for accusing a colleague of harassment, according to The Christian Science Monitor.

Statistics cited from the National Women’s Law Center indicate that more than half of women in the United States are subjected to sexual harassment in the workplace, but much of it goes unreported.

In a Los Angeles Times article, Marcia Greenberger, co-president of the National Women’s Law Center, called the Crawford ruling a “landmark day for all workers in America, and especially for women,” and added that “employees need full protection against retaliation when they have the courage to speak up to eliminate the problem.”

Some business advocates cautioned that future internal investigations could be hampered if employers believe they could now be subjected to retaliation suits, according to Workforce Management. Justice Souter said the bigger risk was fear among employees that they could lose their jobs if they report a problem.

Legal Standing: The Civil Rights Act of 1964

In 1964, Congress Passed Public Law 82-352, protecting anyone from being discriminated against “on the basis of sex as well as race in hiring, promoting, and firing.” According to The National Archives, the Encyclopedia of American Law stated that Rep. Howard W. Smith, D-Va., who added the word “sex” to the wording at the last minute, may have done so in an attempt to kill the bill. However, Smith claimed he was supporting Alice Paul and the National Women’s Party. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission was created to apply the law.

Reference: The Supreme Court’s ruling, careers

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