Robinson v. Shell Oil Co., 519 U.S. 337, 5 (1997)

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Cite as: 519 U. S. 337 (1997)

Opinion of the Court

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 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., ante, at 207-208 (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

2 Our recent decision in Walters v. Metropolitan Ed. Enterprises, Inc., ante, p. 202, held that the term "employees" in 701(b), 42 U. S. C. 2000e(b), referred to those persons with whom an employer has an existing employment relationship. See ante, at 207-208. But 701(b) has two significant temporal qualifiers. The provision, which delimits Title VII's coverage, states that the Act applies to any employer "who has fif-teen or more employees for each working day in each of twenty or more calendar weeks in the current or preceding calendar year." 42 U. S. C. 2000e(b) (emphasis added). The emphasized words specify the time frame in which the employment relationship must exist, and thus the specific context of that section did not present the particular ambiguity at issue in the present case.


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