70 F.3d 325 (4th Cir. 1995), 93-1562, Robinson v. Shell Oil Co.

Docket Nº:93-1562.
Citation:70 F.3d 325
Party Name:Charles T. ROBINSON, Sr., Plaintiff-Appellant, Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Amicus Curiae, v. SHELL OIL COMPANY, Defendant-Appellee.
Case Date:November 29, 1995
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit
 
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70 F.3d 325 (4th Cir. 1995)

Charles T. ROBINSON, Sr., Plaintiff-Appellant,

Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Amicus Curiae,

v.

SHELL OIL COMPANY, Defendant-Appellee.

No. 93-1562.

United States Court of Appeals, Fourth Circuit

November 29, 1995

Argued Sept. 26, 1995.

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[Copyrighted Material Omitted]

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ARGUED: Allen Martin Lenchek, Washington, DC, for Appellant. John Foster Suhre, Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Washington, DC, for Amicus Curiae. Lawrence Christopher Butler, Houston, TX, for Appellee. ON BRIEF: James R. Neely, Jr., Deputy General Counsel, Gwendolyn Young Reams, Associate General Counsel, Vincent J. Blackwood, Assistant General Counsel, Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Washington, DC, for Amicus Curiae.

Before ERVIN, Chief Judge, and RUSSELL, WIDENER, HALL, MURNAGHAN, WILKINS, NIEMEYER, HAMILTON, LUTTIG, WILLIAMS, and MICHAEL, Circuit Judges.

Affirmed by published opinion. Judge HAMILTON wrote the opinion, in which Judges RUSSELL, WIDENER, WILKINS, NIEMEYER, LUTTIG, and WILLIAMS joined. Judge HALL wrote a dissenting opinion, in which Chief Judge ERVIN and Judge MICHAEL joined. Judge MURNAGHAN also wrote a dissenting opinion, in which Chief Judge ERVIN joined. Judge WILKINSON and Judge MOTZ did not participate in this case.

OPINION

HAMILTON, Circuit Judge:

Section 704(a) of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (commonly referred to as Title VII's anti-retaliation provision) makes it unlawful "for an employer to discriminate against any of his employees or applicants for employment" who have either availed themselves of Title VII's protections or assisted others in so doing. See 42 U.S.C.A. Sec. 2000e-3(a) (West 1994). Subsection 2000e(f) of Title VII defines "employee" as "an individual employed by an employer." See 42 U.S.C.A. Sec. 2000e(f) (West 1994). The issue before the en banc court is whether the term "employees" includes former employees. We conclude that it does not.

I.

Shell Oil Company (Shell) terminated Charles T. Robinson (Robinson) from its employment in 1991. Shortly thereafter, Robinson filed a charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), alleging that Shell had terminated him because of his race. While that charge was pending, Robinson applied for a job with another company that contacted Shell, as Robinson's former employer, for an employment reference. According to Robinson, Shell gave him a negative reference. Robinson attributed the negative reference to Shell's intention to retaliate against him for filing the EEOC charge.

Robinson subsequently filed this action. Robinson's complaint alleged that after he filed a charge of race discrimination against Shell with the EEOC, Shell provided "false information and negative job references to perspective [sic] employers." (J.A. 6). The complaint further alleged that such action violated the anti-retaliation provision of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, see 42 U.S.C.A. Sec. 2000e-3(a) (West 1994).

Contending the anti-retaliation provision of Title VII does not provide former employees a cause of action against their former employers for post-employment retaliation, Shell moved to dismiss the complaint on the ground that it failed to state a claim upon which relief could be granted, see Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6). In support of its motion, Shell cited Polsby v. Chase, 970 F.2d 1360 (4th Cir.1992), which held that the anti-retaliation provision of Title VII does not apply to former employees. Upon Shell's motion, the district court dismissed the complaint. Subsequently, the Supreme Court summarily vacated

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Polsby. See Polsby v. Shalala, --- U.S. ----, 113 S.Ct. 1940, 123 L.Ed.2d 646 (1993). 1

Robinson appealed to this court. A divided panel of this court reversed the judgment of the district court, see Robinson v. Shell Oil Co., No. 93-1562, 1995 WL 25831 (4th Cir. January 18, 1995) (designated for publication, but not reported), but, on Shell's suggestion, we vacated the panel decision and reheard the case en banc. We now affirm.

II.

Section 704(a) of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 provides in pertinent part:

(a) It shall be an unlawful employment practice for an employer to discriminate against any of his employees or applicants for employment ... because he has made a charge, testified, assisted, or participated in any manner in an investigation, proceeding, or hearing under this subchapter.

42 U.S.C.A. Sec. 2000e-3(a) (West 1994) (emphasis added). In reviewing the propriety of the district court's dismissal of Robinson's complaint, our task is to apply Title VII's anti-retaliation provision to the facts before us. The dispute regarding the correct application centers on the scope of the term "employees." Robinson asserts the term "employees" includes former, as well as current, employees. According to Robinson, this interpretation is favorable because it gives effect to the remedial purpose of Title VII to eradicate illegal discrimination in the work place. Conversely, relying on the plain language of the statute, Shell asserts that the term "employees" includes only current employees.

A.

Initially, it is helpful to lay out the all too familiar framework of statutory interpretation. Courts are charged with the duty to apply the law that Congress enacted. Accordingly, "[w]e begin, as we must, by examining the statutory language, bearing in mind that we should give effect to the legislative will as expressed in the language." United States v. Murphy, 35 F.3d 143, 145 (4th Cir.1994), cert. denied, --- U.S. ----, 115 S.Ct. 954, 130 L.Ed.2d 897 (1995) (citing K Mart Corp. v. Cartier, Inc., 486 U.S. 281, 291, 108 S.Ct. 1811, 1817, 100 L.Ed.2d 313 (1988)). In examining statutory language, generally, words are given their common usage, and "[c]ourts are not free to read into the language what is not there, but rather should apply the statute as written." Id. We must acknowledge that the duty of this court is to adhere faithfully to the rules of statutory interpretation rather than to "exercise[ ] a high degree of ingenuity in the effort to find justification for wrenching from the words of a statute a meaning which literally they did not bear in order to escape consequences thought to be absurd or to entail great hardship." Crooks v. Harrelson, 282 U.S. 55, 60, 51 S.Ct. 49, 50, 75 L.Ed. 156 (1930).

If a statute defines a term in its definitional section, then that definition controls the meaning of the term wherever it appears in the statute. See Florida Dep't of Banking & Fin. v. Board of Governors of Fed. Reserve Sys., 800 F.2d 1534, 1536 (11th Cir.1986) (definition of term in definitional section of statute controls construction wherever that term appears throughout the statute), cert. denied, 481 U.S. 1013, 107 S.Ct. 1887, 95 L.Ed.2d 494 (1987). As a general rule "[a] definition which declares what a term means ... excludes any meaning that is not stated." 2A George Sutherland, Statutes and Statutory Construction Sec. 47.07, at 152 (5th ed.1992) (emphasis added).

Our inquiry must cease if the statutory language is unambiguous and " 'the statutory

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scheme is coherent and consistent.' " Murphy, 35 F.3d at 145 (quoting United States v. Ron Pair Enters., Inc., 489 U.S. 235, 240-41, 109 S.Ct. 1026, 1030, 103 L.Ed.2d 290 (1989)). In other words, if the statutory language " 'is plain and admits of no more than one meaning, the duty of interpretation does not arise, and the rules which are to aid doubtful meanings need no discussion.' " Id. (quoting Caminetti v. United States, 242 U.S. 470, 485, 37 S.Ct. 192, 194, 61 L.Ed. 442 (1917)). "The language being facially clear and 'within the constitutional authority of the law-making body which passed it, the sole function of the courts is to enforce it according to its terms.' " Id. (quoting Caminetti, 242 U.S. at 485, 37 S.Ct. at 194).

There are, however, rare and narrow exceptions when courts may stray beyond the plain language of unambiguous statutes. Id. One such circumstance arises if the literal application of statutory language would lead to an absurd result. See Crooks, 282 U.S. at 59-60, 51 S.Ct. at 50-51. Only, however, "under rare and exceptional circumstances" do courts find that literal application of statutory language would lead to an absurd result. Id. at 60, 51 S.Ct. at 50. In such cases, the absurdity "must be so gross as to shock the general moral or common sense. And, there must be something to make plain [Congress' intent] that the letter of the statute is not to prevail." Id. (internal citations omitted).

Another circumstance permitting courts to look beyond the plain meaning of unambiguous statutory language arises if literal application of the statutory language would produce a result demonstrably at odds with the intent of Congress; in such cases, the intent of Congress rather than the strict language controls. See Ron Pair Enters., Inc., 489 U.S. at 242, 109 S.Ct. at 1031 ("The plain meaning of legislation should be conclusive, except in the rare cases [in which] the literal application of a statute will produce a result demonstrably at odds with the intentions of its drafters. In such cases, the intention of the drafters, rather than the strict language controls.") (internal quotation marks and citation omitted). To come within the ambit of this exception, however, the contrary intent must have been clearly expressed by the legislative body. See Russello v. United States, 464 U.S. 16, 20, 104 S.Ct. 296, 298-99, 78 L.Ed.2d 17 (1983). Most importantly, in the absence of expressed Congressional intent, we must assume that Congress intended to convey the language's ordinary meaning. See United States v. Goldberger & Dubin, P. C., 935 F.2d 501, 506 (2d...

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