Monday, January 26, 2009

Anti-Retaliation Claims Get Another Boost from US Supreme Court

The legal source SCOTUSblog reports today on the U.S. Supreme Court's unanimous opinion in the case of Crawford v. Nashville County. You can read SCOTUSblog's article here:

SCOTUS recaps the facts as follows:

The case arose when an employer, investigating rumors of sexual harassment by a supervisor, asked the petitioner, Vicky Crawford, whether she’d witnessed any inappropriate behavior. In fact she had, and she proceeded to tell the employer about a series of harassing acts by the supervisor toward herself. The employer did nothing to discipline the supervisor and, instead, fired Crawford and two other employees who also reported being harassed by the supervisor. Crawford filed suit under Title VII’s anti-retaliation provision, which prohibits an employer from terminating a worker because she “has opposed any practice made an unlawful employment practice by this subchapter.”

The County argued that Ms. Crawford was not "opposing" any unlawful practice, but was simply answering a question posed by her employer. But the U.S. Supreme Court held that this was enough to trigger a possible anti-retaliation claim.

The moral of the story: don't turn a weak discrimination or harassment charge into a strong anti-retaliation case. Keeping disgruntled employees is a definite drag on morale, but sometimes an employer must patiently await the ruling on an EEOC charge, so that it is clear you are taking personnel actions for legitimate reasons. And although an employer need not hire counsel when a discrimination complaint is made -- if not before -- it would be well worth the investment. An effective anti-discrimination, anti-harassment policy that is regularly monitored and enforced is the "best defense" against lawsuits of this type. A good lawyer can draft a simple policy that will not tie management's hands in dealing with low-productive or counter-productive employees.

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