Robinson v. Shell Oil Co., 519 U.S. 337 (1997)

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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 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. 340-346. (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 from "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. 340-345.


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