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Robinson v. Shell Oil Co.

SUPREME COURT OF THE UNITED STATES


February 18, 1997

CHARLES T. ROBINSON, SR., PETITIONER

v.

SHELL OIL COMPANY

SYLLABUS BY THE COURT

Certiorari to the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit.

No. 95-1376.

Argued November 6, 1996

Decided February 18, 1997

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 Section(s) 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 Section(s) 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 Section(s) 704(a) of Title VII, includes former employees, petitioner may sue respondent for its allegedly retaliatory postemployment actions. Pp. 3-9.

(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 Section(s) 704(a) is ambiguous as to whether it excludes former employees. First, there is no temporal qualifier in Section(s) 704(a) such as would make plain that it protects only persons still employed at the time of the retaliation. Second, Section(s) 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 Section(s) 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., Section(s) 703(h), Section(s) 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. 3-8.

(b) A holding that former employees are included within Section(s) 704(a)'s coverage is more consistent with the broader context provided by other Title VII sections and with Section(s) 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 Section(s) 703(a), which prohibits discriminatory "discharge." Insofar as Section(s) 704(a) expressly protects employees from retaliation for filing a "charge," and a charge under Section(s) 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 Section(s) 704(a). This interpretation is supported by the arguments of petitioner and EEOC that exclusion of former employees from Section(s) 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. 8-9. 70 F. 3d 325, reversed.

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

Justice Thomas

On Writ of Certiorari to the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit.

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. Section(s) 2000e-3(a). We are asked to decide in this case whether the term "employees," as used in Section(s) 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 Section(s) 704(a) referred only to current employees and therefore petitioner's claim was not cognizable under Title VII. We granted certiorari, 517 U. S. ___ (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 Section(s) 704(a), alleging retaliatory discrimination. On respondent's motion, the District Court dismissed the action, adhering to previous Fourth Circuit precedent holding that Section(s) 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 Section(s) 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. *fn1

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 (1989); see also Connecticut Nat. Bank v. Germain, 503 U. S. 249, 253-254 (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 (1992); McCarthy v. Bronson, 500 U. S. 136, 139 (1991). In this case, consideration of those factors leads us to conclude that the term "employees," as used in Section(s) 704(a), is ambiguous as to whether it excludes former employees.

At first blush, the term "employees" in Section(s) 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. ___ (1997) (slip op., at 5) (interpreting the term "employees" in Section(s) 701(b), 42 U. S. C. Section(s) 2000e(b)). This initial impression, however, does not withstand scrutiny in the context of Section(s) 704(a). First, there is no temporal qualifier in the statute such as would make plain that Section(s) 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. *fn2 Similarly, that other statutes have been more specific in their coverage of "employees" and "former employees," see, e.g., 2 U. S. C. Section(s) 1301(4) (1994 ed., Supp. I) (defining "employee" to include "former employee"); 5 U. S. C. Section(s) 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. Section(s) 2000e(f). The argument that the term "employed," as used in Section(s) 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, Section(s) 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. Section(s) 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 employees, but one does not typically hire persons who already are employees.

Section 717(b) requires federal departments and agencies to have equal employment opportunity policies and rules, "which shall include a provision that an employee or applicant for employment shall be notified of any final action taken on any complaint of discrimination filed by him thereunder." 42 U. S. C. Section(s) 2000e-16(b). If the complaint involves discriminatory discharge, as it often does, the "employee" who must be notified is necessarily a former employee. Similarly, Section(s) 717(c) provides that an "employee or applicant for employment, if aggrieved by the final disposition of his complaint, . . . may file a civil action . . . ." 42 U. S. C. Section(s) 2000e-16(c). Again, given that discriminatory discharge is a forbidden "personnel actio[n] affecting employees," see Section(s) 717(a), 42 U. S. C. Section(s) 2000e-16(a), the term "employee" in Section(s) 717(c) necessarily includes a former employee. See Loeffler v. Frank, 486 U. S. 549 (1988) (involving a discriminatory discharge action successfully brought under Section(s) 717 by a former Postal Service employee). *fn3

Of course, there are sections of Title VII where, in context, use of the term "employee" refers unambiguously to a current employee, for example those sections addressing salary or promotions. See Section(s) 703(h), 42 U. S. C. Section(s) 2000e-2(h) (allowing different standards of compensation for "employees who work in different locations"); Section(s) 717(b), 42 U. S. C. Section(s) 2000e-16(b) (directing federal agencies to establish a plan "to provide a maximum opportunity for employees to advance so as to perform at their highest potential").

But those examples at most demonstrate that the term "employees" may have a plain meaning in the context of a particular section-not that the term has the same meaning in all other sections and in all other contexts. Once it is established that the term "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 further meaning that would resolve the issue in dispute. *fn4

Respondent argues that the addition of the word "his" before "employees" narrows the scope of the provision. Brief for Respondent 19. That argument is true, so far as it goes, but it does not resolve the question before us-namely, in what time frame must the employment relationship exist. The phrase "his employees" could include "his" former employees, but still exclude persons who have never worked for the particular employer being charged with retaliation.

Nor are we convinced by respondent's argument that Congress' inclusion in Section(s) 704(a) of "applicants for employment" as persons distinct from "employees," coupled with its failure to include "former employees," is evidence of congressional intent not to include former employees. The use of the term "applicants" in Section(s) 704(a) does not serve to confine, by negative inference, the temporal scope of the term "employees." Respondent's argument rests on the incorrect premise that the term "applicants" is equivalent to the phrase "future employees." But the term "applicants" would seem to cover many persons who will not become employees. Unsuccessful applicants or those who turn down a job offer, for example, would have been applicants, but not future employees. And the term fails to cover certain future employees who may be offered and will accept jobs without having to apply for those jobs. Because the term "applicants" in Section(s) 704(a) is not synonymous with the phrase "future employees," there is no basis for engaging in the further (and questionable) negative inference that inclusion of the term "applicants" demonstrates intentional exclusion of former employees.

Finally, the use of the term "individual" in Section(s) 704(a), as well as in Section(s) 703(a), 42 U. S. C. Section(s) 2000e-2(a), provides no meaningful assistance in resolving this case. To be sure, "individual" is a broader term than "employee" and would facially seem to cover a former employee. But it would also encompass a present employee as well as other persons who have never had an employment relationship with the employer at issue. The term "individual," therefore, does not seem designed to capture former employees, as distinct from current employees, and its use provides no insight into whether the term "employees" is limited only to currentemployees.

B.

Finding that the term "employees" in Section(s) 704(a) is ambiguous, we are left to resolve that ambiguity. The broader context provided by other sections of the statute provides considerable assistance in this regard. As noted above, several sections of the statute plainly contemplate that former employees will make use of the remedial mechanisms of Title VII. See supra, at 4-5. Indeed, Section(s) 703(a) expressly includes discriminatory "discharge" as one of the unlawful employment practices against which Title VII is directed. 42 U. S. C. Section(s) 2000e-2(a). Insofar as Section(s) 704(a) expressly protects employees from retaliation for filing a "charge" under Title VII, and a charge under Section(s) 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 Section(s) 704(a).

In further support of this view, petitioner argues that the word "employees" includes former employees because to hold otherwise would effectively vitiate much of the protection afforded by Section(s) 704(a). See Brief for Petitioner 20-30. This is also the position taken by EEOC. See Brief for United States and EEOC as Amici Curiae 16-25; see also 2 EEOC Compliance Manual Section(s) 614.7(f). According to EEOC, exclusion of former employees from the protection of Section(s) 704(a) would undermine the effectiveness of Title VII by allowing the threat of post-employment 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. Brief for United States and EEOC as Amici Curiae 18-21.

Those arguments carry persuasive force given their coherence and their consistency with a primary purpose of antiretaliation provisions: Maintaining unfettered access to statutory remedial mechanisms. Cf. NLRB v. Scrivener, 405 U. S. 117, 121-122 (1972) (National Labor Relations Act); Mitchell v. Robert DeMario Jewelry, Inc., 361 U. S. 288, 292-293 (1960) (Fair Labor Standards Act). EEOC quite persuasively maintains that it would be destructive of this purpose of the antiretaliation provision for an employer to be able to retaliate with impunity against an entire class of acts under Title VII-for example, complaints regarding discriminatory termination. We agree with these contentions and find that they support the inclusive interpretation of "employees" in Section(s) 704(a) that is already suggested by the broader context of Title VII.

III.

We hold that the term "employees," as used in Section(s) 704(a) of Title VII, is ambiguous as to whether it includes former employees. It being more consistent with the broader context of Title VII and the primary purpose of Section(s) 704(a), we hold that former employees are included within Section(s) 704(a)'s coverage. Accordingly, the decision of the Fourth Circuit is reversed.

It is so ordered.


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