Robinson v. Shell Oil Company

RESPONDENT: Shell Oil Company
LOCATION: Camp Newfound Owatonna

DOCKET NO.: 95-1376
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1986-2005)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit

CITATION: 519 US 337 (1997)
ARGUED: Nov 06, 1996
DECIDED: Feb 18, 1997

Allen M. Lenchek - Argued the cause for the petitioner
Lawrence C. Butler - Argued the cause for the respondent
Paul R. Q. Wolfson - Department of Justice, on behalf of the United States, as amicus curiae, supporting the petitioner

Facts of the case

Charles T. Robinson, Sr., was fired by Shell Oil Co. Thereafter, Robinson 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, Robinson applied for a job with another company, which contacted Shell for an employment reference. Robinson, claiming that Shell gave him a negative reference in retaliation for his having filed the EEOC charge, then filed suit under 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 suit. In affirming, the en banc Court of Appeals held that the term "employees" in Title VII refers only to current employees and therefore petitioner's claim was not justicible under Title VII.


Does the term "employees," as used in under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, includes former employees, such that a petitioner may bring suit against his or her former employer for post-employment actions allegedly taken in retaliation for having filed a charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission?

Media for Robinson v. Shell Oil Company

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - November 06, 1996 in Robinson v. Shell Oil Company

William H. Rehnquist:

We will hear argument next in No. 95-1376, Charles T. Robinson, Sr., v. Shell Oil Company.

Mr. Lenchek.

Allen M. Lenchek:

Mr. Chief Justice, and if it please the Court:

This case presents the question: Does the provision of Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act that prohibits retaliation against, quote, employees, unquote, for filing charges of discrimination or otherwise availing themselves of their rights under Title VII... namely Section 704(a)... does that section cover former employees, employees such as Petitioner, Charles Robinson, who were discharged prior to the alleged retaliation?

In this case, after Charles Robinson was terminated by Shell Oil, he filed a charge of discrimination against Shell under Title VII, and subsequently, Shell gave him a negative job reference.

He then brought the present action, alleging that that negative reference was made in retaliation for his earlier charge of discrimination.

The Fourth Circuit held that Charles Robinson was not even entitled to have the court determine whether that reference was retaliatory, because he was not employed by Shell at the time of the reference.

If Shell had given him that reference the day before he was terminated, everyone agrees, he would have had that right to a judicial determination.

William H. Rehnquist:

Well, if you're right, it's... it's a rather sure way to make... make sure you don't get a bad reference; you just file a complaint with the EEOC a couple of days after... or a couple of days before you're fired, even though the firing is completely justified.

Allen M. Lenchek:

Well, that is not, in fact, what actually happens.

William H. Rehnquist:

No, it may not be what in fact happened in your case, but it certainly might happen in a number of other cases if we sustain your position.

Or even if you're not going to be fired, even if you just intend to quit, it would be very wise, before you quit, to file an EEOC complaint.

Because then, if... if the employer gives you a bad reference in... in your later job, he takes the risk of being sued for that, on the basis of retaliation.

He's buying a lawsuit.

Allen M. Lenchek:

There are, in fact, disincentives to frivolous charges built into Title VII, which hopefully would take care of that problem.

John Paul Stevens:

Well, what are... what are they?

Allen M. Lenchek:

A principal brings a frivolous lawsuit under Title VII may be hit with attorney's fees and costs.

William H. Rehnquist:

What about, are there any disincentives to filing a frivolous complaint with the EEOC?

Any similar disincentives?

Allen M. Lenchek:

There... there are... no, the EEOC can't apply any disincentives like that.

That's true.

But we believe that the language--

Sandra Day O'Connor:

What other remedies are available to someone who, after he's... he's been terminated, thinks that a reference was erroneously made and given by the former employer?

Is there any other action at law that would be open for redress?

Allen M. Lenchek:

--There are possible actions under State law.

Sandra Day O'Connor:


Allen M. Lenchek:

But it is well established that Title VII is intended to give parallel remedies to any other remedies that may be available.

We believe that the language of Title VII, and the purpose of Section 704(a), indicate that Congress intended former employer... employees... to be covered by the retaliatory section.

Section 704(a) provides that it shall be an unlawful employment practice for an employer to discriminate against any of his employees or applicants for employment because he has opposed the charge or because he has opposed an unlawful practice or because he has made a charge or participated in an EEOC proceeding as a possible witness.

I emphasize that Section 704(a) protects an employee who has made a charge, because the substantive provision of Title VII, Section 703(a), cited in full and verbatim in the Respondent's brief at page 14, makes it an unlawful employment practice to discharge any individual because of his race, and so on.