CLIENT ALERT: SCOTUS Holds That Filing an EEOC Charge is Not a Jurisdictional Requirement for Title VII Suits
In a unanimous ruling on June 3, 2019, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Title VII claimants may proceed to court even if they have not exhausted administrative remedies before the EEOC or similar state agencies. In Fort Bend County v. Davis, the Court held that a plaintiff’s failure to file a charge of discrimination does not deprive a federal court of jurisdiction over a Title VII discrimination claim. And while employers can point to this procedural defect as a defense, such defense may be considered waived if not raised early in litigation.
In Fort Bend County, the plaintiff filed a charge with the EEOC alleging retaliation after she complained to her employer about sexual harassment. Later, the employer discharged her when she missed work on a Sunday to attend church. The plaintiff attempted, but failed, to amend her EEOC charge to include a claim for discrimination based on religion. Following appeal and remand, and several years after the plaintiff filed her complaint, the employer moved to dismiss on grounds that the court lacked jurisdiction over the religious discrimination claim because it was not brought before the EEOC prior to filing a lawsuit as required by 42 U.S.C. §2000e-5(e)(1). The District Court granted the motion, but the Fifth Circuit reversed.
In affirming the Fifth Circuit, the Supreme Court concluded that Title VII’s charge-filing requirement is a procedural obligation, not a jurisdictional one. The difference goes to when the defense can be raised. A jurisdictional challenge can be raised by the defendant at any time in the litigation process. The plaintiff’s failure to comply with a procedural obligation, however, must be raised early in the litigation or it will be considered waived.
The Court’s decision has two principal ramifications for employers. First, a plaintiff’s procedural defect must be raised in an answer or a motion to dismiss. Recognizing that the defense is available will require a careful review of the plaintiff’s submissions to the EEOC, including the charge and any “bill of particulars” or other supporting documents. Employers can expedite this analysis by maintaining well-organized records and supplying them to counsel as soon as possible. Second, plaintiffs (particularly unrepresented ones) may be inclined to skip the EEOC and file claims directly in the district court. Although dismissal of such complaints is possible, doing so will likely require full briefing before the court. In addition, court filings are more likely to generate press coverage than confidential EEOC proceedings. Employers may therefore experience more litigation-related pressure as a result of the Supreme Court’s recent decision.