Failure to Comply with the EEOC’s Claim-filing Requirements May Not Bar Courts from Hearing Discrimination Cases  

On June 3, 2019, the United States Supreme Court issued a rare unanimous decision authored by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg in Fort Bend County, Texas v. Davis (2019) — S.Ct. —, 2019 WL 2331306.  The Court held the charge-filing requirements specified in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 are not jurisdictional.  If a requirement is jurisdictional, courts may not adjudicate a claim unless the requirement has been met.  Challenges to a court’s subject-matter jurisdiction may be raised by a defendant at any time during litigation.  On the other hand, if a claim-filing requirement is simply a procedural prerequisite to filing a lawsuit, a defendant employer must timely object based on the plaintiff’s failure to comply, or forfeit the objection. 

Title VII instructs charging parties (applicants, employees or former employees) to file a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) or equivalent state agency before commencing an action in court.  The EEOC or state agency may notify the employer and investigate the charge.  If it is determined there is “reasonable cause” to believe the charges are true and constitute a legal violation, the EEOC or state agency will seek to resolve the matter informally, and may file a civil action in court.  If, however, the EEOC or state agency does not find “reasonable cause” or decides not to take action on behalf of the charging party, it issues a “right-to-sue” notice, so the charging party may commence a lawsuit.

In Davis, employee Lois M. Davis filed a charge with the EEOC against her employer, Fort Bend County, alleging sexual harassment and retaliation for reporting the sexual harassment.  While the EEOC charges were pending, Fort Bend fired Davis for failing to appear at work on a Sunday, as she attended a church event instead.  Davis attempted to supplement her EEOC charge with a new religion-based discrimination charge on a separate, handwritten form.  However, she did not formally amend her EEOC charge.  Upon receiving her “right-to-sue” letter from the EEOC, Davis filed suit against Fort Bend, including an allegation for religious discrimination.

Years after the litigation commenced and after various appeals, when only the religion-based discrimination claim remained, Fort Bend asserted the district court lacked jurisdiction over Davis’s case because her EEOC charge did not include religion-based discrimination.  The district court agreed and granted Fort Bend’s motion to dismiss the lawsuit.  On appeal from the dismissal, the Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit reversed, holding that Title VII’s charge-filing requirement is not jurisdictional but rather a “prudential prerequisite” to suit, which Fort Bend forfeited by waiting too long to raise the objection.

Fort Bend appealed and the Supreme Court agreed to hear the matter in order to resolve a conflict among the U.S. Circuit Courts of Appeals about whether Title VII’s charge-filing requirement is jurisdictional.  In contrast to the Fifth Circuit’s view in Davis, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals (whose jurisdiction includes California) is one of three circuits to rule that Title VII’s charge-filing requirement is jurisdictional (see Sommatino v. United States (9th Cir. 2001) 255 F.3d 704); the Fourth and Eleventh Circuits are the other two.

The Supreme Court reviewed the language of Title VII and determined that while it prescribes a party’s procedural obligations, it does not speak to a court’s authority to adjudicate a Title VII claim.  Accordingly, the Court held, “Title VII’s charge-filing requirement is a processing rule, albeit a mandatory one, not a jurisdictional prescription delineating the adjudicatory authority of courts.”  Because Fort Bend delayed in raising the issue, it waived any objection to Davis’s failure to exhaust administrative remedies by timely filing a charge with the EEOC.  The Court did not state or imply a deadline by which the defense must be raised, but easily concluded that where it is not raised until years into the litigation, as in Davis, the opportunity to object was forfeited.

It is important to note the Court did not eliminate the requirement for an employee or other charging party to file a claim through the proper agency.  Individuals who allege discrimination, harassment, or retaliation under federal law must still file their claims with the EEOC within 180 days of the alleged unlawful employment practice (or 300 days if the charge is initially filed with a cooperating state agency).  (42 U.S.C. § 2000e-5(e)(1).)  Similarly, individuals who allege discrimination, harassment, or retaliation under the California Fair Employment and Housing Act, must still exhaust administrative procedures established by the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH) by filing a complaint with the DFEH within one year of the alleged unlawful employment practice.  (Gov. Code, § 12960(d).)  However, if an employer fails to raise this procedural defense in a timely manner, a court will allow claims to proceed through litigation that were not subject to the administrative process.  In this respect, it could be easier for individuals to “have their day in court” when they file untimely or incomplete administrative charges.  Consequently, employers should promptly review complaints or charges filed with the EEOC or DFEH, with the assistance of legal counsel, so that appropriate objections and defenses are raised as early as possible.

 AALRR has a dedicated group of attorneys supporting public and private sector California employers.  We can assist with evaluating complaints or charges filed with the EEOC or DFEH and raising the proper procedural objections.  Please contact your usual AALRR attorney or any of the authors for assistance.

AALRR Law Clerk Spencer Shure assisted in preparing this entry.

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