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High court case: If harassed workers talk, can they be fired?

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On Wednesday, the justices take up another retaliation case – this one involving a 30-year employee in the payroll department of the Metropolitan Government of Nashville and Davidson County, Tenn. Vicky Crawford agreed to answer questions during an informal inquiry into allegations that the director of employee relations had engaged in sexual harassment. Among the director's duties was investigation of sexual harassment complaints.

Ms. Crawford did not initiate the investigation, nor had she filed any formal charges. The internal inquiry was conducted by a female lawyer in the legal department. Crawford told the lawyer she was afraid that if she told the truth she might lose her job. Nonetheless, she became one of three women who told the lawyer that the director of employee relations had made repeated inappropriate gestures and comments of a sexual nature in the workplace.

After the investigation, the director of employee relations was given a verbal reprimand, but no other disciplinary action was taken. Senior management then began an investigation of Crawford and her department. She and the other two women were fired.

Crawford sued.

The central question in the case is whether Crawford is protected under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 from retaliation by senior managers after informally accusing a senior manager of sexual harassment. Her lawyers say she is protected because of her cooperation in the internal sexual-harassment investigation.

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