Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits an employer from taking retaliatory action against an employee because she complained about race or gender discrimination, or racial or sexual harassment. In other words, it is not lawful for an employer to demote an employee, decrease her pay, or subject the employee to further harassment simply because she suggested to the employer that unlawful harassment or discrimination might be occurring at work. Protection from retaliation is an important component of Title VII because few would report the discrimination or harassment that Title VII is intended to remedy if speaking out left the speaker vulnerable to un-remediable, demotion, or discharge by an embarrassed or resentful employer.
However, what happens to the brave employee who has reported suspected discrimination or harassment to her employer and who, afterward, leaves the employer to seek work elsewhere? Does Title VII protect from retaliatory acts (e.g. poor job references) even after the employment relationship has ended? The answer is yes.
The Supreme Court decided this in Robinson v. Shell Oil Co., 117 S. Ct. 843 (1997). Shell Oil fired Charles Robinson who soon after complained to the EEOC that his firing was due to his race. Mr. Robinson next applied for a job with another company, and when that company sought a reference from Shell Oil, Shell Oil provided a poor one. Mr. Robinson claimed Shell Oil issued the negative reference in retaliation for the complaint pending at the EEOC. In analyzing the retaliation claim, the Court had to decide whether Mr. Robinson still fit within the definition of a protected “employee,” under Title VII’s retaliation protection, where he wasn’t working for Shell Oil when it issued the bad reference. The Court held that “employee” included “former employee” because Title VII was intended to provide protection from retaliation even after the employment has ended.
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