Winning Plaintiff In Supreme Court Crawford Decision Gets Big Verdict For Title VII Retaliation
We often read about cases in the courts of appeals, including the ultimate court of appeals -- the United States Supreme Court -- in which the plaintiff prevails and gets the opportunity to take his or her case to a jury.
We study these cases because of the legal principles and precedents involved and how they will affect other clients and cases in the future.
We don't usually hear -- and it's not commonly reported -- what eventually happens to the plaintiff who won the reversal and got the chance to go to court. That's because some of those cases are settled, and the settlements are often times confidential. In other instances, the results of the trial simply don't make the news.
So I was really pleased this morning to read in one the bulletins I receive from the National Employment Lawyers Association about the fantastic verdict on Monday for Vicky Crawford, the plaintiff in the landmark United Supreme Court decision Crawford v. Metropolitan Government of Nashville and Davidson Cty .
Here's what happened in the case.
Facts Of The Case
In 2002, the Metropolitan Government of Nashville and Davidson County, Tennessee ("Metro") began looking into rumors of sexual harassment by the Metro School District's employee relations director, Gene Hughes.
When Vicky Crawford, a 30 year Metro employee , was asked whether she had witnessed "inappropriate behavior" on the part of Hughes, Crawford described several instances of sexually harassing behavior including instances where Hughes:
- repeatedly put his crotch up to her window and
- entered her office and grabbed her head and pulled it to his crotch
Two other employees also reported being harassed by Hughes.
Metro took no action against Hughes, but fired Crawford and the two other accusers soon after finishing the investigation. Metro claimed it fired Crawford for embezzlement.
Crawford filed a lawsuit claiming that she was fired in retaliation for her report about Hughes's behavior in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Title VII's Anti-Retaliation Provisions
Title VII has two provisions which prohibit retaliation in employment discrimination cases and make it unlawful for an employer to discriminate against any of its employees because:
- he or she "has opposed any practice which is unlawful" under Title VII
- he or she has "made a charge, testified, assisted, or participated in any manner in an investigation, proceeding or hearing under this subchapter"
These provisions are commonly known as the "opposition clause" and the "participation clause".
The District Court and Sixth Circuit Decisions
The District Court granted summary judgment in favor of Metro. It held that Crawford did not satisfy the opposition clause because she had not "instigated or initiated any complaint", but had "merely answered questions by investigators in an already-pending investigation, initiated by someone else."
The District Court also concluded that Crawford's claim failed under the participation clause because it held that the only circumstances in which an employee would be protected from retaliation for participation in an employer's internal investigation was where "the investigation occur[ed] pursuant to a pending EEOC charge."
Crawford appealed and the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed on the same grounds.
Crawford next filed a petition for certiorari requesting that the United States Supreme Court accept the case. The petition was granted.
The Supreme Court Decision
In one of the most significant 2009 U.S. Supreme Court decisions in the area of employment law --- decided just about one year ago --- the Court reversed the Sixth Circuit, broadly interpreted the retaliation provisions of Title VII and found in favor of Crawford.
The Court unanimously concluded that the ordinary meaning of “oppose” includes giving a “disapproving account” of unlawful behavior -- even if the employee does not take any further action on her own to stop or remedy the conduct.
The Court stated:
[T]here is no reason to doubt that a person can 'oppose' by responding to someone else's questions just as surely as by provoking the discussions, and nothing in the statute requires 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.
Therefore, the Court held, an employee may be protected from retaliation under the opposition clause if he or she discloses information as part of an internal investigation, even if the employee is not the complainant.
The decision was one of the rare cases from this Supreme Court in which there was no dissent (though Justice Alto and Thomas wrote a concurring opinion.)
In sum, the judgment of the Court of Appeals was reversed which meant that the case was sent back to the district court for trial. The case was set for trial for January, 2010, and concluded with a verdict last week.
Last Monday the jury returned a verdict finding that Crawford -- who has not worked since 2003 -- was retaliated against and awarded $1,556,258.86 in damages. Here's the breakdown:
- $420,000 in compensatory damages
- $408,762.12 in backpay (past economic loss)
- $727,496.74 in front pay (future economic loss)
Fear of retaliation for reporting sexual harassment or other discrimination in the workplace is quite common. It's also common for potential witnesses to be fearful that they will lose their jobs if they cooperate with an investigation of a charge of discrimination or harassment.
For those of us who practice in this area, these are concerns that we hear almost daily.
There is no doubt that Title VII --as well as other civil rights statutes-- are intended to protect individuals from retaliation and the Supreme Court made it clear in the Crawford decision that those provisions are to be interpreted broadly -- not narrowly, as many of the federal courts were erroneously deciding.
The Crawford opinion was certainly one of the most important employee rights decisions of the decade, and it's certainly great to hear about this fantastic verdict for Vicky Crawford and her legal team after this very long road.