Washington, D.C. Oct. 8, 2008. The United States Supreme Court heard oral argument today in the employee-rights case of Crawford v. Metropolitan Government of Nashville and Davidson County. The case will set national precedent on the issue of whether witnesses in internal company investigations are protected from retaliation.
The petitioner, Vicky Crawford, worked for thirty years for the respondent Metro School District. During an internal investigation she testified that she was the victim of sexual harassment. She was fired after making this internal complaint. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit upheld the firing, holding that complaints made during such internal investigations were not protected activity. The U.S. Supreme Court granted certiorari and the case was argued today.
The Court will decide a crucial issue facing many employee-whistleblowers: Whether participation in internal company investigations is protected under the law. Most corporations and government agencies now have “employee concerns” programs that regularly review whistleblower allegations. According to Stephen M. Kohn, the Executive Director of the National Whistleblowers Center, “stripping employees who work within the system to resolve concerns will have a devastating impact on law voluntary enforcement of vital civil rights laws. Employees should be encouraged to resolve disputes internally, not fired for having the courage to report misconduct.”
At oral argument the Justices indicated support for Ms. Crawford’s position. For example, Justice Anthony Kennedy indicated that Ms. Crawford had a “very strong argument” that her disclosure was protected activity. Chief Justice John Roberts appeared to agree with Kennedy’s position, stating that Crawford properly “made it clear” that she opposed the improper conduct. Justices Stephen Breyer and Ruth Bader Ginsburg also expressed sympathy for Crawford’s position during the oral argument.
“Firing employees who identify wrongdoing would permit company’s to lawfully cover up misconduct and create an atmosphere of intimidation. Based on the questioning during oral argument, we are optimistic that the Court will rule in favor of Ms. Crawford. Any other outcome would devastate employee protections under Title VII and other similar whistleblower laws,” Kohn added.
The petitioner Vicky S. Crawford was fired from the Metropolitan Government of Nashville and Davidson County, Tennessee in January 2003. If she prevails on this appeal her case will be remanded to the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Tennessee.