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117 S.Ct. 843

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519 U.S. 337, 117 S.Ct. 843, 72 Fair Empl.Prac.Cas. (BNA) 1856, 69 Empl. Prac. Dec. P 44,493, 136 L.Ed.2d 808, 65 USLW 4103, 97 FCDR 756, 97 Cal. Daily Op. Serv. 1083, 97 Daily Journal D.A.R. 1609, 97 CJ C.A.R. 223, 10 Fla. L. Weekly Fed. S 261

(Cite as: 519 U.S. 337, 117 S.Ct. 843)



Supreme Court of the United States

Charles T. ROBINSON, Sr., Petitioner,

v.

SHELL OIL COMPANY.
No. 95-1376.

Argued Nov. 6, 1996.

Decided Feb. 18, 1997.
Former employee brought action against his former employer, claiming retaliatory discrimination in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The United States District Court for the District of Maryland, J. Frederick Motz, Chief Judge, dismissed complaint for failure to state claim. Former employee appealed. On rehearing en banc, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, 70 F.3d 325, affirmed. After granting certiorari, the Supreme Court, Justice Thomas, held that term “employees,” as used in antiretaliation provision of Title VII, includes former employees.
Reversed.
West Headnotes
[1] Statutes 361 190
361 Statutes

     361VI Construction and Operation

           361VI(A) General Rules of Construction

               361k187 Meaning of Language

                     361k190 k. Existence of Ambiguity. Most Cited Cases




Supreme Court's first step in interpreting statute is to determine whether language at issue has plain and unambiguous meaning with regard to particular dispute in case; Court's inquiry must cease if statutory language is unambiguous and statutory scheme is coherent and consistent.
[2] Civil Rights 78 1110
78 Civil Rights

     78II Employment Practices

           78k1108 Employers and Employees Affected

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     (Formerly 255k1 Master and Servant)




Term “employees,” as used in antiretaliation provision of Title VII, is ambiguous as to whether it includes former employees, and therefore, consistent with broader context provided by other sections of Title VII as well as purpose of antiretaliation provision, such term is to be construed to include former employees. Civil Rights Act of 1964, § 704(a), 42 U.S.C.A. § 2000e-3(a).
[3] Statutes 361 190
361 Statutes

     361VI Construction and Operation

           361VI(A) General Rules of Construction

               361k187 Meaning of Language

                     361k190 k. Existence of Ambiguity. Most Cited Cases

     (Formerly 361k188)
Statutes 361 205
361 Statutes

     361VI Construction and Operation

           361VI(A) General Rules of Construction

               361k204 Statute as a Whole, and Intrinsic Aids to Construction

                     361k205 k. In General. Most Cited Cases
Statutes 361 208
361 Statutes

     361VI Construction and Operation

           361VI(A) General Rules of Construction

               361k204 Statute as a Whole, and Intrinsic Aids to Construction

                     361k208 k. Context and Related Clauses. Most Cited Cases




Plainness or ambiguity of statutory language is determined by reference to language itself, specific context in which that language is used, and broader context of statute as whole.
**844 Syllabus FN*
FN* The syllabus constitutes no part of the opinion of the Court but has been prepared by the Reporter of Decisions for the convenience of the reader. See United States v. Detroit Timber & Lumber Co., 200 U.S. 321, 337, 26 S.Ct. 282, 287, 50 L.Ed. 499.
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. 846-849.
(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. 846-848.
*338 b) A holding that former employees are included within § 704(a)'s coverage is **845 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. 848-849.
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.
For U.S. Supreme Court briefs, see:1996 WL 341308 (Pet.Brief)1996 WL 419672 (Resp.Brief)1996 WL 648039 (Reply.Brief)
*339 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. 1154, 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.
*340 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).
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