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Supreme Court finds for workplace whistle-blower

The high court sides with employee who claims she was fired after cooperating with a sexual harassment investigation.

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By Bill Mears

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- In an important victory for workplace whistle-blowers, the Supreme Court sided on Monday with a government employee who says she was fired after cooperating with a sexual harassment investigation.

The justices unanimously concluded a federal civil rights law protects workers from retaliation, even when they have not personally complained about discrimination on the job.

A lawsuit was brought by Vicky Crawford, a 30-year employee of the Nashville, Tennessee, school district.

Writing for the court, Justice David Souter noted Title VII - part of the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964 that forbids retaliation against workers who report race or gender discrimination - can be read broadly in this case.

"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," Souter wrote.

The school system began an investigation in 2002 into rumors of sexual harassment by a male school system supervisor. Crawford herself never filed a formal complaint over the allegations, but told investigators she had been subject to "inappropriate behavior" by the employee relations director. Among the claims were that the supervisor had repeatedly grabbed his crotch in Crawford's presence, and once entered her office and "grabbed her head and pulled it to his crotch," according to court records.

Crawford said she showed her displeasure, yelling at the official, "Get the hell out of my office."

Two other employees also reported being sexually harassed by the supervisor.

The school district took no action against the man, but Crawford and the two other female accusers were fired shortly after the investigation concluded. In Crawford's case, she was told it was for embezzling, a charge she denies.

Crawford filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. A judge ruled she had no claim because she had not "instigated or initiated" any complaint, but had merely answered questions in ongoing probe. A federal appeals court agreed, but the justices have now reversed that finding.

Souter noted a "catch-22" for workers in situations similar to Crawford's. "If it were clear law that an employee who reported discrimination in answering an employer's questions could be penalized with no remedy, prudent employees would have a good reason to keep quiet about Title VII offenses against themselves or against others."

But during oral arguments in October, Justice Antonin Scalia worried a broad reading of Title VII might hurt companies trying to remove unproductive or harassing workers. "Any employee who is smart enough to come in and testify against sexual harassment has a guaranteed job," he said. At the same time, "Maybe an employer would rather say - I'd rather roll the dice and not conduct an investigation and [thereby] insulate all my hostile employees from employment actions."

Scalia eventually sided with the majority favoring Crawford. The Bush administration also supported her claims during oral arguments. Her lawsuit now goes back to the lower courts.

The case is Crawford v. Metropolitan Government of Nashville and Davidson County, TN (06-1595). To top of page

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