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

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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.



(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 the 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 the EEOC, and would provide a perverse incentive for employers to fire employees who might bring Title VII claims. Pp. 345-346.

70 F.3d 325, reversed.

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

Allen M. Lenchek argued the cause for petitioner. With him on the briefs were Eric Schnapper, Elaine R. Jones, Theodore M. Shaw, Norman J. Chachkin, and Charles Stephen Ralston.

Paul R. Q. Wolfson argued the cause for the United States et al. as amici curiae urging reversal. With him on the brief were Solicitor General Days, Assistant Attorney General Patrick, Deputy Solicitor General Bender, C. Gregory Stewart, and Gwendolyn Young Reams.

L. Chris Butler argued the cause for respondent. With him on the brief was Patricia McHugh Lambert. *

*Briefs of amici curiae urging reversal were filed for the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law et al. by Paul C. Saunders, Marc L. Fleischaker, Norman Redlich, Barbara R. Arnwine, Thomas J. Henderson, Richard T. Seymour, Teresa A. Ferrante, Cathy Ventrell-Monsees, Dennis Courtland Hayes, Judith H. Lichtman, Donna R. Lenhoff, Helen

Full Text of Opinion

Primary Holding

Federal law prohibits employers nationwide from taking adverse action in retaliation against former employees who filed job discrimination complaints. Specifically, writing negative job references about these employees for retaliatory reasons alone is strictly forbidden.


A former employee of Shell Oil brought a claim arguing that the company had fired him because of his race. He then sought a job with another company before the lawsuit had been resolved. The new company approached Shell for a reference and received a negative reference.



  • Clarence Thomas (Author)

Case Commentary

An amicus brief by the Washington Post was influential in convincing Justice Thomas and others that the purposes of discrimination law would not be served if former employees were dissuaded from reporting discrimination because of the impact on their future employment. The EEOC would not receive as many reports of unlawful conduct if employers were permitted to write bad job references and otherwise retaliate. However, this decision had no impact on the former employee's race discrimination claim, which in fact he eventually lost.

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