Tuesday, January 27, 2009

BREAKING NEWS: U.S. Supreme Court delivers victory to women; Metro Nashville now faces possibility of costly judgment in harassment case

The U.S. Supreme Court today delivered victory to women sexually harassed in the workplace with a decision regarding the ability of a fired Nashville school district employee to pursue damages and veracity of her claims against government here.

The employee was fired after she cooperated in a city investigation led by Karl Dean's legal department of sexual harassment allegations against a school district executive earlier this decade. The woman did not file the complaint and did not want to participate in the investigation for fear of retribution.

She was promised by Dean's legal department, according to her attorneys, that she would be protected. Dean now is mayor of Nashville.

She participated and was fired later for reasons of poor performance. Two other female employees who cooperated with the investigation also were fired despite legal department assurances.

She sued. The trial court in this process ruled she could not pursue her claims, without even ruling on their veracity. An appeals court reversed the decision. The Supreme Court sided with the appeals level, along with intervention by the University of Washington Law School and the Bush administration.

The case, called Crawford vs Metro, now returns to the trial court for the determination of facts and possible award of damages. I hope the award is significant and in the millions of dollars. This woman has waited almost all decade for justice. I do not know if she has been able to get another job with a firing on her resume. I do not know what happened to the other women.

But the good ol' boy network appears to have prevailed initially here. It now should be smashed, no matter the ultimate facts in this case.

Here is a very well-reasoned explanation of the ruling -- free of opinion -- from a good friend and attorney Bryan Pieper of Drescher & Sharp Attorneys in Nashville. He is an expert on employment law and a very good family man. If you've been wronged in the workplace, give him a call (615) 425-7111:

This does not mean that Ms. Crawford is right or that the facts she alleges are true. Rather, what this means is that the Supreme Court said that there should be a trial to determine whether the facts she alleges are true. The trial court had held that even if we assume that Ms. Crawford’s allegations are factually true, the way the statute is written, those facts would not constitute a violation of the statute. Therefore, her lawsuit was dismissed without a trial in a procedure called “summary judgment.” It may seem unfair that not everybody’s claim gets to be heard at trial, but summary judgment is an important tool for screening out those cases that can be decided on legal issues alone, rather than needing factual determinations.

So the question for the Supreme Court was what exactly the statutory language means. The Supreme Court disagreed with the trial court, holding that if it turns out that Ms. Crawford can prove her allegations, then it actually would violate the statute. For that reason, there needs to be a trial to determine what really did or did not happen. In other words, the Supreme Court did not determine whether or not Ms. Crawford’s factual allegations (about the harassment and the retaliation) are true, and did not determine whether or not Metro’s defense (that Ms. Crawford was fired for misconduct, not retaliation) is true, but instead determined that this case should go back to the trial court for further proceedings.

I have had cases in which we argued about the same issue and the same statutory language. A reasonable interpretation of the statutory language can be made either way, as it is not as clear as it could be. At least now the Supreme Court has settled the legal question of what that statutory language means. That’s what the Supreme Court is for.

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