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 (1996), and now reverse.
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.
We granted certiorari in order to resolve a conflict among the Circuits on this issue.
Our first step in interpreting a statute is to determine whether the language at issue has a plain and unambiguous meaning with regard to the particular dispute in the case. Our inquiry must cease if the statutory language is unambiguous and "the statutory scheme is coherent and consistent." United States v.Ron Pair Enterprises, Inc., 489 U.S. 235, 240 (1989); see also Connecticut Nat. Bank v. Germain, 503 U.S. 249, 253-254 (1992).
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.
Second, Title VII's definition of "employee" likewise lacks any temporal qualifier and is consistent with either current or past employment. Section 701(f) defines "employee" for purposes of Title VII as "an individual employed by an employer." 42 U. S. C. § 2000e(f). The argument that the term "employed," as used in § 701(f), is commonly used to mean "[p]erforming work under an employer-employee relationship," Black's Law Dictionary 525 (6th ed. 1990), begs the question by implicitly reading the word "employed" to mean "is employed." But the word "employed" is not so limited in its possible meanings, and could just as easily be read to mean "was employed."
Third, a number of other provisions in Title VII use the term "employees" to mean something more inclusive or different from "current employees." For example, §§ 706(g)(1) and 717(b) both authorize affirmative remedial action (by a court or EEOC, respectively) "which may include . . . reinstatement or hiring of employees." 42 U. S. C. §§ 2000e— 5(g)(1) and 2000e—16(b). As petitioner notes, because one does not "reinstat[e]" current employees, that language necessarily refers to former employees. Likewise, one may hire individuals to be employees, but one does not typically hire persons who already are employees.
Section 717(b) requires federal departments and agencies to have equal employment opportunity policies and rules, "which shall include a provision that an employee or applicant for employment shall be notified of any final action taken on any complaint of discrimination filed by him thereunder." 42 U. S. C. § 2000e—16(b). If the complaint involves
Of course, there are sections of Title VII where, in context, use of the term "employee" refers unambiguously to a current employee, for example, those sections addressing salary or promotions. See § 703(h), 42 U. S. C. § 2000e—2(h) (allowing different standards of compensation for "employees who work in different locations"); § 717(b), 42 U. S. C. § 2000e— 16(b) (directing federal agencies to establish a plan "to provide a maximum opportunity for employees to advance so as to perform at their highest potential").
But those examples at most demonstrate that the term "employees" may have a plain meaning in the context of a particular section—not that the term has the same meaning in all other sections and in all other contexts. Once it is established that the term "employees" includes former employees in some sections, but not in others, the term standing alone is necessarily ambiguous and each section must be analyzed
Respondent argues that the addition of the word "his" before "employees" narrows the scope of the provision. Brief for Respondent 19. That argument is true, so far as it goes, but it does not resolve the question before us—namely, in what time frame must the employment relationship exist. The phrase "his employees" could include "his" former employees, but still exclude persons who have never worked for the particular employer being charged with retaliation.
Nor are we convinced by respondent's argument that Congress' inclusion in § 704(a) of "applicants for employment" as persons distinct from "employees," coupled with its failure to include "former employees," is evidence of congressional intent not to include former employees. The use of the term "applicants" in § 704(a) does not serve to confine, by negative inference, the temporal scope of the term "employees." Respondent's argument rests on the incorrect premise that the term "applicants" is equivalent to the phrase "future employees." But the term "applicants" would seem to cover many persons who will not become employees. Unsuccessful applicants or those who turn down a job offer, for example, would have been applicants, but not future employees. And the term fails to cover certain future employees who may be offered and will accept jobs without having to apply for those jobs. Because the term "applicants" in § 704(a) is not synonymous with the phrase "future employees," there is no basis for engaging in the further (and questionable) negative inference
Finally, the use of the term "individual" in § 704(a), as well as in § 703(a), 42 U. S. C. § 2000e—2(a), provides no meaningful assistance in resolving this case. To be sure, "individual" is a broader term than "employee" and would facially seem to cover a former employee. But it would also encompass a present employee as well as other persons who have never had an employment relationship with the employer at issue. The term "individual," therefore, does not seem designed to capture former employees, as distinct from current employees, and its use provides no insight into whether the term "employees" is limited only to current employees.
Finding that the term "employees" in § 704(a) is ambiguous, we are left to resolve that ambiguity. The broader context provided by other sections of the statute provides considerable assistance in this regard. As noted above, several sections of the statute plainly contemplate that former employees will make use of the remedial mechanisms of Title VII. See supra, at 342-343. Indeed, § 703(a) expressly includes discriminatory "discharge" as one of the unlawful employment practices against which Title VII is directed. 42 U. S. C. § 2000e—2(a). Insofar as § 704(a) expressly protects employees from retaliation for filing a "charge" under Title VII, 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).
In further support of this view, petitioner argues that the word "employees" includes former employees because to hold otherwise would effectively vitiate much of the protection afforded by § 704(a). See Brief for Petitioner 20-30. This is also the position taken by the EEOC. See Brief for
Those arguments carry persuasive force given their coherence and their consistency with a primary purpose of antiretaliation provisions: Maintaining unfettered access to statutory remedial mechanisms. Cf. NLRB v. Scrivener, 405 U.S. 117, 121-122 (1972) (National Labor Relations Act); Mitchell v. Robert DeMario Jewelry, Inc., 361 U.S. 288, 292— 293 (1960) (Fair Labor Standards Act). The EEOC quite persuasively maintains that it would be destructive of this purpose of the antiretaliation provision for an employer to be able to retaliate with impunity against an entire class of acts under Title VII—for example, complaints regarding discriminatory termination. We agree with these contentions and find that they support the inclusive interpretation of "employees" in § 704(a) that is already suggested by the broader context of Title VII.
We hold that the term "employees," as used in § 704(a) of Title VII, is ambiguous as to whether it includes former employees. It being more consistent with the broader context of Title VII and the primary purpose of § 704(a), we hold that former employees are included within § 704(a)'s coverage. Accordingly, the decision of the Fourth Circuit is reversed.
It is so ordered.
Briefs of amici curiae urging affirmance were filed for the Equal Employment Advisory Council by Robert E. Williams and Ann Elizabeth Reesman; and for the Washington Legal Foundation by J. Thomas Kilpatrick, Daniel J. Popeo, and Paul D. Kamenar.