On June 3, 2019, the U.S. Supreme Court concluded that the requirement set forth in Title VII to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that a plaintiff must first exhaust her administrative remedies with the EEOC before filing suit is not jurisdictional, but instead, a rule that the employer may waive.
In Fort Bend County, Texas v. Davis, the employee, Davis, while still employed, filed a charge of discrimination with the EEOC alleging sexual harassment and retaliation. While her charge was pending, she was instructed to work a Sunday shift, but was terminated when she instead attended church and failed to work that shift. She offered to arrange for another employee to replace her at work, but that request was denied. Davis then attempted to “supplement” the allegations in her pending charge and handwrote on the intake questionnaire “religion” on the “Employment Harms or Actions” portion, and she checked the boxes for “discharge” and “reasonable accommodation.”
Later, Davis filed suit, alleging discrimination on the basis of religion and retaliation for reporting sexual harassment. After seven years of litigation and appeals, Davis’s employer, Fort Bend, argued—for the first time—that the district court did not have jurisdiction to consider Davis’s religious discrimination claims because Davis failed to properly present those claims to the EEOC for consideration. The district court agreed, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed, and the Supreme Court agreed to resolve the issue.
In a unanimous decision reinstating Davis’s religious discrimination claims, the Supreme Court found 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.” In reaching its decision, the Court reviewed Title VII’s charge-filing requirement and its jurisdictional provisions, as well as the federal question jurisdictional grant set forth in 28 U.S.C. § 1331. The Supreme Court’s analysis focused on the distinctions between jurisdictional prescriptions and non-jurisdictional mandatory claims processing rules, and the Court provided several examples. The Court agreed with the Fifth Circuit that the federal district court retained the ability to adjudicate Davis’s religious discrimination claims because Fort Bend neglected to timely raise as a defense Davis’s failure to exhaust her administrative remedies.
The Court also provided some practical observations, noting that its holding “gives plaintiff’s scant incentive to skirt the instruction. Defendants, after all, have good reason promptly to raise an objection that may rid them of the lawsuit filed against them. A Title VII complainant would be foolhardy consciously to take the risk that the employer would forgo a potentially dispositive defense.”
The Supreme Court’s opinion provides yet another example of the importance of properly and timely asserting those defenses which an employer possesses to employment based claims.