The U.S. Supreme Court’s recent decision in Fort Bend County v. Davis opens a narrow door for plaintiffs to attempt bringing claims under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as amended without previously filing a charge of discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) asserting such claims.
In Davis, the Court unanimously held that Title VII’s charge-filing requirement is not a jurisdictional requirement that can be raised at any stage of a lawsuit, but rather a mandatory procedural prescription that can be forfeited if not raised in a timely manner. Therefore, because the Defendant-employer in Davis did not assert its defense of failure to satisfy the charge-filing requirement in a timely manner, the Court deemed such defense forfeited and allowed the Plaintiff’s claim of discrimination to proceed, even though such claim was never asserted in an EEOC charge of discrimination.
The language of Title VII itself contains what the Court referred to as the Act’s “charge-filing requirement,” meaning that plaintiffs seeking to bring claims of discrimination or harassment under the statute must first satisfy the administrative hurdle of submitting information about such claims to the EEOC and waiting 180 days prior to bringing a lawsuit. This charge-filing requirement is mandatory (Title VII states a charge “shall be filed”). As the Court points out, however, adherence to mandatory rules may be forfeited, so long as such rules are non-jurisdictional.
The plaintiff, Lois Davis, was an employee of Fort Bend County who informed the company’s human resources department that her director was sexually harassing her. After an internal investigation, the director resigned, and Davis’s supervisor (a friend of the former director) allegedly began retaliating against her by curtailing her work responsibilities. Davis then submitted an intake questionnaire with the EEOC, and filed a charge of discrimination one month later, claiming sexual harassment and retaliation.
While Davis’s charge was under investigation with the EEOC, she was terminated for attending church instead of work on a Sunday. Thereafter, Davis attempted to supplement her EEOC allegations by handwriting “religion” on the EEOC intake questionnaire, along with checking the “discharge” and “reasonable accommodation” boxes. However, she did not make any changes to the formal charge document itself.
After being notified of her right to sue, Davis brought two Title VII claims for religious discrimination and retaliation for reporting sexual harassment against her former employer. The district court granted summary judgment for the employer on both claims. On appeal, the Fifth Circuit reversed as to Davis’s religion-based discrimination claim and remanded it to the district court, where the employer moved to dismiss the complaint for lack of jurisdiction because Davis had not listed a religion-based discrimination claim in her formal EEOC charge.
Even though this was the first time (after several years into litigation) that the employer asserted such an argument, the district court agreed with the employer and dismissed Davis’s claim. On appeal, the Fifth Circuit reversed, yet again, holding that the charge-filing requirement in Title VII is not jurisdictional, and therefore any assertion that such requirement was not followed by the plaintiff was forfeited because Fort Bend County had not raised it until after “an entire round of appeals all the way to the Supreme Court.”
The employer’s key argument on appeal in Davis was that the plaintiff’s failure to include religious discrimination in her EEOC charge of discrimination meant the courts had no jurisdiction to hear Davis’s religious discrimination claim. In an opinion by Justice Ginsburg, the Court rejected this argument, noting that “jurisdictional” requirements are reserved for those rules describing the types of cases a court can hear (subject-matter jurisdiction) and the types of people a court has authority over (personal jurisdiction).
When determining whether the charge-filing requirement was jurisdictional or non-jurisdictional, Justice Ginsburg highlighted the fact that the charge-filing requirement is located in a statutory provision completely separate from those Title VII provisions conferring jurisdiction on federal courts, and that the charge-filing provision in no way mentions the authority or jurisdiction of the courts. She noted that although charge-filing rules are mandatory under Title VII, they “speak to … a party’s procedural obligations,” rather than a court’s adjudicatory authority to hear the claim. Therefore, Justice Ginsburg stated that absent explicit indication by Congress in the text of the statute that such requirement is meant to be jurisdictional, “courts should treat the restriction as nonjurisdictional in character.”
The Court went on to note that “a rule may be mandatory without being jurisdictional” and ultimately concluded that Title VII’s charge-filing requirement was a clear example of such a mandatory prudential requirement that is not jurisdictional. The effect of such a conclusion means that the Plaintiff’s failure to follow the charge-filing requirement for her religious discrimination claim was not fatal to the district court’s ability to hear such claim. Rather, the Court permitted such claim to proceed, even though EEOC filing requirements had not been met, because any potential objection the employer had to plaintiff’s failure to follow the charge-filing requirement was “untimely” asserted.
Jurisdictional vs. Non-Jurisdictional Requirements
In its analysis, the Court explained how its narrow ruling in this case hinges upon the notion that Title VII’s charge-filing requirement is a nonjurisdictional rule, rather than a jurisdictional rule. The plaintiff’s claim was permitted to proceed in Davis because failure of a party to satisfy a jurisdictional rule can be raised as a defense at any stage of a legal proceeding, however, an objection based on a party’s failure to satisfy a nonjurisdictional or procedural requirement can be forfeited if not asserted in a timely manner. Therefore, because the employer did not assert such defense until after years into litigation, it was effectively barred from being used as a tool to dismiss the claim.
Although the Court’s holding in Davis creates a narrow loophole for plaintiffs to (attempt to) avoid the mandatory charge-filing requirements found in Title VII, it does not guarantee the viability of such claims that have not met EEOC administrative requirements – leaving such claims at risk of being dismissed if the defendant promptly objects to a party’s failure to follow EEOC filing requirements.
Davis should not be read as altering the language of Title VII or removing its statutory charge-filing requirements. It simply clarifies that charge-filing requirements do not confer jurisdiction on a court, and thus, failure to follow such requirements must be objected to in a timely manner, rather than being used as a defense tactic at any point in litigation.
Although the Davis ruling “allowed” the plaintiff’s discrimination claim to proceed, it does not create a rule that generally protects plaintiffs who fail to follow the mandated charge-filing process. Rather, it allows plaintiffs who have brought claims absent meeting the EEOC charge-filing prerequisite to continue with such claims if not objected to by the defendant in a timely manner. Or stated another way, it places a burden on defendants to bring up the issue of a plaintiff’s failure to exhaust administrative remedies early on in a lawsuit, rather than having the privilege of asserting such defense at any time.
Because courts must still enforce mandatory statutory rules if a party properly raises them, the Court’s ruling in Davis “gives plaintiffs scant incentive to skirt the instruction” of Title VII’s charge-filing requirement. Therefore, it is unlikely that any future plaintiffs will risk not following the administrative prerequisite of filing an EEOC charge before bringing a lawsuit under Title VII. A defendant could easily defeat such claims by timely raising a procedural challenge, resulting in dismissal. It was the defendant’s failure in this specific case to timely raise the procedural challenge that allowed for the plaintiff’s claims to escape dismissal. As a result, this advantageous ruling for the plaintiff is narrowly applicable to the specific facts of her case.
For assistance with employment and workplace disputes, contact Clouse Brown PLLC. Our attorneys are available to assist employers and business owners in conducting workplace investigations and drafting or revising anti-harassment policies and employee handbooks. We also assist in senior-management and conduct employee training regarding how to comply with state and federal employment laws.