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Jury Awards $1.5 Million in Retaliation Case

02/18/2010 -After a protracted legal battle, a woman has been awarded $1.5 million by a Tennessee jury. The case had gone all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which had remanded it back to the Tennessee lower court for retrial. The jury found that Vicky Crawford’s employer wrongfully terminated her after she gave negative information about a coworker during an internal investigation into a sexual harassment allegation.

In May 2002, an employee with the city of Nashville, Tennessee, filed a sexual harassment claim against her boss, Gene Hughes. Because Hughes was the director of employee relations and would usually handle sexual harassment investigations, the issue was turned over to the city’s legal department. As part of the investigation, the city called Crawford, who had worked with Hughes for several years, for an interview.

Crawford told investigators that Hughes had sexually harassed her and other employees. Two other employees also claimed that Hughes had harassed them. The investigators found that Hughes had harassed his employees but did not take any disciplinary action against him. Instead, the city mandated sexual harassment training and education for the entire staff.

After the sexual harassment investigation was complete, the city launched investigations of the three people who claimed that Hughes had harassed them. All three were fired. Crawford was terminated in January 2003 after 30 years of service. She was accused of embezzlement and drug use, charges later found to be false.

Crawford filed a retaliation lawsuit against the city, claiming that she was fired in retaliation for her role in the sexual-harassment investigation. The city requested summary judgment—a hearing based on the facts of a case, without a trial—arguing that Crawford did not bring the harassment charges and that her firing therefore could not be retaliation. The court granted the summary judgment.

On appeal, a federal court upheld the lower court ruling. The court noted that employees involved in internal investigations into wrongdoing are protected from adverse employment actions if they oppose that wrongdoing. The court found that Crawford did not fit into that category because she did not bring a sexual harassment claim against Hughes nor did she pursue the matter during or after the investigation.

The Supreme Court, however, overturned that decision in January 2009, finding that Crawford need not bring a formal sexual harassment claim to be protected from retaliation. In the written opinion of the case, the Court noted that “nothing in the statute requires a freakish rule protecting an employee who reports discrimination on her own initiative but not [protecting] one who reports the same discrimination in the same words when asked a question.” It sent the case to the lower court for retrial.

In last week’s verdict, the jury awarded Crawford $420,000 in compensatory damages, more than $408,000 in back pay, and more than $727,000 in reimbursement for future pay.