In a unanimous 9-0 decision authored by Justice Ginsburg, the U.S. Supreme Court resolved a split amongst the circuit courts of whether filing a charge of discrimination pursuant to Title VII is a jurisdictional prerequisite or a claims-processing rule. Prior to the Supreme Court’s resolution of the issue, the First, Second, Third, Fifth, Sixth, Seventh, Tenth, and D.C. Circuit Courts all held that the administrative exhaustion requirements under Title VII are not jurisdictional, but rather an affirmative defense that can be waived by an employer if not timely raised. On the other side of the circuit split, the Forth, Ninth, and Eleventh Circuit Courts held that the administrative exhaustion requirement is jurisdictional, and that a federal district court has no authority to adjudicate Title VII claims if the plaintiff has not first filed a charge with the EEOC. In its decision, Fort Bend County v. Davis, all nine justices agreed that the charge filing requirement under Title VII is not jurisdictional, and therefore can be waived by a defendant if not timely raised.
Lois Davis, a former employee of Fort Bend County, filed a civil action in January 2012 in federal district court alleging religious discrimination, retaliation, and sexual harassment. Prior to the commencement of the lawsuit, Davis filed a charge with the EEOC in March of 2011 asserting she had been subjected to retaliation and sexual harassment—not religious discrimination—and was issued a notice of right to sue. During the litigation, the federal district court granted Fort Bend County’s motion for summary judgment on all of Davis’ claims, and Davis appealed the trial court’s decision to the Fifth Circuit. The Fifth Circuit reversed the trial court’s decision on Davis’ religious discrimination claim, finding genuine disputes of material fact existed as to whether: (1) Davis held a bona fide religious belief that she needed to attend Sunday services; and (2) Fort Bend would have suffered an undue hardship in accommodating Davis’ religious observance.
On remand, Fort Bend County asserted—for the first time in the litigation—that Davis had failed to exhaust her administrative remedies as required under Title VI because her charge did not include an allegation that Fort Bend County had discriminated against her based on her religion. The trial court agreed, finding that although Fort Bend County had not timely raised the issue, the filing of a charge of discrimination was a jurisdictional prerequisite in Title VII cases. The court therefore dismissed Davis’ religious discrimination claim. Davis again appealed the trial court’s decision to the Fifth Circuit. The Fifth Circuit reversed the trial court’s decision, finding the charge-filing requirement under Title VII was a claims-processing rule that could be waived if not timely raised.
Supreme Court’s Holding
The Supreme Court agreed with the Fifth Circuit, finding that “Title VII’s charge-filing requirement is a processing rule, albeit a mandatory one, not a jurisdictional prescription delineating the adjudicatory authority of courts.” To reach this conclusion, the Court reasoned that Congress granted federal courts “jurisdiction over Title VII actions pursuant to 28 U.S.C. §1331’s grant of general federal-question jurisdiction, and Title VII’s own jurisdictional provision.” Not included in these jurisdictional provisions are Title VII’s charge-filing requirement. Rather, the Court noted, the charge-filing requirements are contained in separate provisions and only “speak to . . . a party’s procedural obligations.” Bolstering its reasoning, the Court highlighted a laundry list of other federal statutes with similar claim-processing rules that are not jurisdictional prerequisites. Accordingly, the Court held that “a rule may be mandatory without being jurisdictional, and Title VII’s charge-filing requirement fits that bill.”
Impact on Employers
The effect of this decision on employers is fairly straight-forward. Employers who have been served with a Title VII suit must conduct the proper diligence at the beginning of the suit to determine if the plaintiff has properly exhausted his or her administrative remedies prior to the filing of suit. Failure to timely raise these issues will necessarily result in the employer’s forfeiture of this affirmative defense later in the litigation and cannot serve as a basis to have the claims dismissed.