Supreme Court will hear employee harassment case

The justices will decide whether workers who cooperate with discrimination investigations are protected against losing their jobs.

By David G. Savage, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court agreed Friday to decide whether employees are protected from being fired or demoted if they cooperate with an internal investigation of a supervisor who is accused of discrimination.

Under federal law, it is illegal to discriminate against employees based on their race, religion or sex. The law also protects from retaliation workers who file a federal civil rights lawsuit or a federal discrimination complaint.

But several lower courts have ruled recently that this protection does not extend to employees who participate in internal investigations by private companies or public agencies, but do not file their own lawsuits or federal complaints. This creates a huge gap in the law, civil rights lawyers say, particularly for problems such as sexual harassment in the workplace. The high court itself advised employers they should encourage workers to confidentially report examples of harassment.

Yet some judges have ruled the law does not protect employees who make such reports.

The justices voted to hear an appeal from Vicky S. Crawford, a longtime school payroll employee in Nashville who was fired shortly after agreeing to speak to a school official who was investigating allegations of sexual harassment by a supervisor.

Although Crawford was not the first to raise the allegations, she and several other women told the investigator of crude comments and lewd gestures that they said Gene Hughes made. She reported that Hughes had “put his crotch up to [her] window” and that he once “grabbed her head and pulled it to his crotch.”

Despite these reports, Hughes, the school district’s employee relations director, was not disciplined. But soon after the investigation ended, Crawford and the two other employees who reported his alleged behavior were fired. School officials accused Crawford, a 30-year veteran, of “neglect of duty” and drug use.

Crawford sued the Metropolitan Government of Nashville for violating her rights under the Civil Rights Act of 1964. She contended her firing was triggered by her reports of sexual harassment by Hughes. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission approved her suit.

But a federal judge and the U.S. Court of Appeals in Cincinnati dismissed her suit before a trial, saying she was not protected from being fired for cooperating with the internal probe.

The appellate judges said Crawford had not filed a formal complaint of discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. She was merely a witness to the harassment, not the prime victim, they said. They reasoned that the law protects employees only when they file official charges, not when they cooperate with an employer’s internal investigation.

U.S. Solicitor General Paul D. Clement joined with Crawford’s lawyers in urging the court to hear her appeal and to rule in her favor. Internal investigations are “an integral part” of enforcing the civil rights law in the workplace, he said. These investigations will not work unless “employees who give candid testimony are protected against retaliation,” he said.

The justices are expected to hear Crawford vs. Metropolitan Government of Nashville in late April and issue a ruling by July.

Also Friday, the court agreed to rule on a potentially important dispute over age discrimination. At issue is whether older workers who challenge their dismissals must prove that their age was the reason, or instead, whether their employer must prove there was a good reason besides their age for firing them.

This case arose when 31 employees of the Knolls Atomic Power Laboratory were let go when the company was reducing its workforce. All but one of the laid-off workers were older than 40, and thereby protected by federal law against age discrimination.

The fired employees sued, and they lost when the lower courts said they must prove age was the reason for their dismissal. In their appeal, they argued that because the employer had a pattern of firing older workers, it should have to prove there was a valid reason beyond their age for firing them. The case is Meacham vs. Knolls Atomic Power Laboratory.