The facts of this case are straight forward. Robinson worked for Shell for 12 years when he was fired in 1991. After his termination, he filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, claiming that Shell fired him because of his race. While that charge was pending, Robinson applied for a job with another company that contacted Shell for an employment reference. According to Robinson, Shell provided the company with false information and a poor reference in retaliation for his filing of the EEOC charge.
The lower court dismissed Robinson's case, finding that Title VII did not provide protection for former employees. The intermediate appeals court affirmed, stating that the term "employee" found in Title VII should be read restrictively because the types of practices protected by Title VII, such as hiring and firing, relate to current employment relationships, not post-employment relationships. This decision was at odds with the majority of other federal courts that addressed the issue, and, in light of this disagreement, the Supreme Court heard the case in order to resolve the issue.
The Supreme Court found that the statutory language was ambiguous as to whether it included former employers. Not only did the statute not mention "former employees," the Court reasoned, but it also did not mention "current employees." Where the statutory language is ambiguous, noted the Court, it must look to the broader context of Title VII, as well as to the specific purpose of the anti-retaliation provision. The Court found that another section of Title VII allows former employees to sue for discriminatory discharge, and also that the specific purpose of the anti-retaliation provision is to promote unencumbered access to a remedy for discrimination. Given the broad meaning of the term "employee" in other parts of the statute and the remedial purpose of the anti-retaliation provision, the Supreme Court held that the term "employee" includes former workers.
Employers should carefully examine their procedures for giving out references regarding former employees. An employer that brings post-employment harm to a former employee may be sued not only for defamation, negligence or other state law torts, but also for retaliation in violation of Title VII.