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On Monday, the Supreme Court eliminated one legal pathway employers often use to defeat discrimination and retaliation lawsuits. In a unanimous opinion authored by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the Court held Title VII’s requirement that a complainant file a charge with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (the “EEOC”) prior to filing a lawsuit in federal court is not jurisdictional.1 The Court explained that the charge-filing requirement is simply a procedural mandate – meaning that an employer must timely raise the plaintiff’s failure to file a charge, or forfeit the defense entirely.
The case – Fort Bend County v. Davis – began when Lois Davis sued her former employer, Fort Bend County, for religious discrimination under Title VII after she was denied time off and terminated for attending church instead of a Sunday work assignment. At the time, Ms. Davis had a pending EEOC charge against Fort Bend County related to sexual harassment allegations. Following her termination, Ms. Davis attempted to supplement her charge by handwriting “religion” on the intake questionnaire form, but she did not make any revisions to the charge document itself. The EEOC subsequently granted Ms. Davis her right to sue on the sexual harassment claim, and she filed a lawsuit in federal court on both the sexual harassment and religious discrimination claims, without filing a charge claiming religious discrimination.
Years into the litigation, only the religious discrimination claim remained in the lawsuit. In response to Fort Bend County’s newly-asserted defense that the federal district court lacked jurisdiction because Ms. Davis did not file a charge for religious discrimination with the EEOC as required by Title VII, the district court dismissed the lawsuit. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit reversed the decision, holding that Title VII’s charge-filing requirement is not jurisdictional and instead is a “prudential prerequisite to suit,” which Fort Bend County forfeited by failing to timely raise.
The question presented to the Supreme Court was: “Is Title VII’s charge-filing precondition to suit a ‘jurisdictional’ requirement that can be raised at any stage of the proceeding, or is it a procedural prescription mandatory if timely raised, but subject to forfeiture if tardily asserted?” The Court, agreeing with the Fifth Circuit, held that it was the latter. The Court reasoned that “a rule may be mandatory without being jurisdictional” and a defendant may still defeat a Title VII lawsuit by promptly raising the “dispositive defense” that the plaintiff failed to properly file a charge – something that employers should do in their initial defensive pleading if they find themselves defending a Title VII or state law discrimination lawsuit.
1. Failure to meet a jurisdictional requirement cannot be waived and may be asserted at any time throughout a proceeding.