Robinson v. Shell Oil Co.

Decision Date18 February 1997
Docket Number951376
PartiesCharles T. ROBINSON, Sr., Petitioner, v. SHELL OIL COMPANY
CourtU.S. Supreme Court
Syllabus *

After he was fired by respondent, petitioner filed an employment discrimination charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. While that charge was pending, petitioner applied for a job with another company, which contacted respondent for an employment reference. Claiming that respondent gave him a negative reference in retaliation for his having filed the EEOC charge, petitioner filed suit under §704(a) of Title VII, which makes it unlawful "for an employer to discriminate against any of his employees or applicants for employment'' who have availed themselves of Title VII's protections. The District Court dismissed the action, and the en banc Fourth Circuit affirmed, holding that the term "employees'' in §704(a) refers only to current employees and therefore petitioner's claim was not cognizable under Title VII.

Held: Because the term "employees,'' as used in §704(a) of Title VII, includes former employees, petitioner may sue respondent for its allegedly retaliatory postemployment actions. Pp. ___-___.

(a) Consideration of the statutory language, the specific context in which it is used, and the broader context of Title VII as a whole leads to the conclusion that the term "employees'' in §704(a) is ambiguous as to whether it excludes former employees. First, there is no temporal qualifier in §704(a) such as would make plain that it protects only persons still employed at the time of the retaliation. Second, §701(f)'s general definition of "employee'' likewise lacks any temporal qualifier and is consistent with either current or past employment. Third, a number of other Title VII provisions, including §§706(g)(1), 717(b), and 717(c), use the term "employees'' to mean something more inclusive or different than "current employees.'' That still other sections use the term to refer unambiguously to a current employee, see, e.g., §703(h), §717(b), at most demonstrates that the term may have a plain meaning in the context of a particular section-not that it has the same meaning in all other sections and in all other contexts. Once it is established that "employees'' includes former employees in some sections, but not in others, the term standing alone is necessarily ambiguous and each section must be analyzed to determine whether the context gives the term a definite meaning. Pp. ___-___.

(b) A holding that former employees are included within §704(a)'s coverage is more consistent with the broader context provided by other Title VII sections and with §704(a)'s primary purpose of maintaining unfettered access to Title VII's remedial mechanisms. As noted, several sections of the statute plainly contemplate that former employees will make use of Title VII's remedial mechanisms. These include §703(a), which prohibits discriminatory "discharge.'' Insofar as §704(a) expressly protects employees from retaliation for filing a "charge,'' and a charge under §703(a) alleging unlawful discharge would necessarily be brought by a former employee, it is far more consistent to include former employees within the scope of "employees'' protected by §704(a). This interpretation is supported by the arguments of petitioner and EEOC that exclusion of former employees from §704(a) would undermine Title VII's effectiveness by allowing the threat of postemployment retaliation to deter victims of discrimination from complaining to EEOC, and would provide a perverse incentive for employers to fire employees who might bring Title VII claims. Pp. ___-___.

70 F.3d 325, reversed.

THOMAS, J., delivered the opinion for a unanimous Court.

Allen M. Lenchek, Rockville, MD, for petitioner.

Paul R.Q. Wolfson, Washington, DC, for the United States as amicus curiae by special leave of the Court.

Lawrence C. Butler, Houston, TX, for respondent.

Justice THOMAS delivered the opinion of the Court.

Section 704(a) of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 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. 78 Stat. 257, as amended, 42 U.S.C. §2000e-3(a). We are asked to decide in this case whether the term "employees,'' as used in §704(a), includes former employees, such that petitioner may bring suit against his former employer for postemployment actions allegedly taken in retaliation for petitioner's having filed a charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). The United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, sitting en banc, held that the term "employees'' in §704(a) referred only to current employees and therefore petitioner's claim was not cognizable under Title VII. We granted certiorari, 517 U.S. ----, 116 S.Ct. 1541, 134 L.Ed.2d 645 (1996), and now reverse.

I

Respondent Shell Oil Co. fired petitioner Charles T. Robinson, Sr., in 1991. Shortly thereafter, petitioner filed a charge with the EEOC, alleging that respondent had discharged him because of his race. While that charge was pending, petitioner applied for a job with another company. That company contacted respondent, as petitioner's former employer, for an employment reference. Petitioner claims that respondent gave him a negative reference in retaliation for his having filed the EEOC charge.

Petitioner subsequently sued under §704(a), alleging retaliatory discrimination. On respondent's motion, the District Court dismissed the action, adhering to previous Fourth Circuit precedent holding that §704(a) does not apply to former employees. Petitioner appealed, and a divided panel of the Fourth Circuit reversed the District Court. The Fourth Circuit granted rehearing en banc, vacated the panel decision, and thereafter affirmed the District Court's determination that former employees may not bring suit under §704(a) for retaliation occurring after termination of their employment. 70 F.3d 325 (1995) (en banc).

We granted certiorari in order to resolve a conflict among the Circuits on this issue. 1

II
A

Our first step in interpreting a statute is to determine whether the language at issue has a plain and unambiguous meaning with regard to the particular dispute in the case. Our inquiry must cease if the statutory language is unambiguous and "the statutory scheme is coherent and consistent.'' United States v. Ron Pair Enterprises, Inc., 489 U.S. 235, 240, 109 S.Ct. 1026, 1030, 103 L.Ed.2d 290 (1989); see also Connecticut Nat. Bank v. Germain, 503 U.S. 249, 253-254, 112 S.Ct. 1146, 1149-1150, 117 L.Ed.2d 391 (1992).

The plainness or ambiguity of statutory language is determined by reference to the language itself, the specific context in which that language is used, and the broader context of the statute as a whole. Estate of Cowart v. Nicklos Drilling Co., 505 U.S. 469, 477, 112 S.Ct. 2589, 2594-2595, 120 L.Ed.2d 379 (1992); McCarthy v. Bronson, 500 U.S. 136, 139, 111 S.Ct. 1737, 1740, 114 L.Ed.2d 194 (1991). In this case, consideration of those factors leads us to conclude that the term "employees,'' as used in §704(a), is ambiguous as to whether it excludes former employees.

At first blush, the term "employees'' in §704(a) would seem to refer to those having an existing employment relationship with the employer in question. Cf. Walters v. Metropolitan Ed. Enterprises, Inc., 519 U.S. ----, ----, 117 S.Ct. 660, 664, --- L.Ed.2d ---- (1997) (interpreting the term "employees'' in §701(b), 42 U.S.C. §2000e(b)). This initial impression, however, does not withstand scrutiny in the context of §704(a). First, there is no temporal qualifier in the statute such as would make plain that §704(a) protects only persons still employed at the time of the retaliation. That the statute could have expressly included the phrase "former employees'' does not aid our inquiry. Congress also could have used the phrase "current employees.'' But nowhere in Title VII is either phrase used-even where the specific context otherwise makes clear an intent to cover current or former employees. 2 Similarly, that other statutes have been more specific in their coverage of "employees'' and "former employees,'' see, e.g., 2 U.S.C. §1301(4) (1994 ed., Supp. I) (defining "employee'' to include "former employee''); 5 U.S.C. §1212(a)(1) (including "employees, former employees, and applicants for employment'' in the operative provision), proves only that Congress can use the unqualified term "employees'' to refer only to current employees, not that it did so in this particular statute.

Second, Title VII's definition of "employee'' likewise lacks any temporal qualifier and is consistent with either current or past employment. Section 701(f) defines "employee'' for purposes of Title VII as "an individual employed by an employer.'' 42 U.S.C. §2000e(f). The argument that the term "employed,'' as used in §701(f), is commonly used to mean " [p]erforming work under an employer-employee relationship,'' Black's Law Dictionary 525 (6th ed.1990), begs the question by implicitly reading the word "employed'' to mean "is employed.'' But the word "employed'' is not so limited in its possible meanings, and could just as easily be read to mean "was employed.''

Third, a number of other provisions in Title VII use the term "employees'' to mean something more inclusive or different than "current employees.'' For example, §§706(g)(1) and 717(b) both authorize affirmative remedial action (by a court or EEOC, respectively) "which may include . . . reinstatement or hiring of employees.'' 42 U.S.C. §§2000e-5(g)(1) and 2000e-16(b). As petitioner notes, because one does not "reinstat[e]'' current employees, that language necessarily refers to former employees. Likewise, one may hire individuals to be...

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