On June 3, 2019, the United States Supreme Court released an important decision in the case Fort Bend County, Texas v. Davis (slip opinion available at: https://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/18pdf/18-525_m6hn.pdf) regarding claims of employment discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (“Title VII”). This decision promises to have widespread impact for many cases of employment discrimination filed in federal court, as it reevaluates and clarifies the role and impact of filing a charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”).
When an individual believes that they suffered employment discrimination in the workplace, federal law may provide a remedy. In such a case, when an individual seeks to vindicate their rights under federal employment discrimination law, Title VII requires that complainants first file what is known as a “charge” with the EEOC prior to pursuing a civil action in federal court. This procedure has been treated by many courts as a prerequisite to the federal court’s jurisdiction over the individual’s discrimination claim.
After the EEOC receives a charge of discrimination they notify the employer(s) named by the charging party and investigate the allegations. The EEOC’s goal is to evaluate the truth of the allegations, as well as to determine if the dispute can be resolved through informal means or, if that is not possible, whether the EEOC will bring a civil action on behalf of the charging party against the employer(s) in court. The EEOC has 180 days from the date the charge is filed to complete this process, after which (if neither of those courses is taken) they must provide a “right-to-sue” notice to the complainant. Once a complainant receives a right to sue notice, they may then pursue a civil action against their employer on their own behalf.
The above procedure is followed by employees and employment attorneys nationwide, and many courts have treated the failure to file an EEOC charge as a jurisdictional defect, such that the court was unable to hear the case. This position was recently questioned in Fort Bend case and the Court held that this position was contrary to the law.
Lois Davis was employed by Fort Bend County in the information technology sector when she began to be sexually harassed by a coworker. Following an investigation, the accused harasser resigned; however, Ms. Davis alleged that her supervisor, who had been a close friend of the accused harasser, exhibited retaliatory behavior towards her as a result of her complaint. This caused Ms. Davis to submit an intake questionnaire and subsequent charge to the EEOC, as a precursor to pursuing a civil suit. While that charge was pending, Ms. Davis alleged that she experienced further discrimination by the same supervisor based on her religion. Ms. Davis added “religion” to her intake questionnaire but failed to add it to her formal EEOC charge.
Ultimately, Ms. Davis received a right to sue notice and filed a civil suit. The case proceeded in federal court and the Defendants won summary judgment on all counts excluding that of religious discrimination. Years into the litigation, Defendants introduced an argument – for the very first time – that the federal court did not have jurisdiction over the religious discrimination charge because Ms. Davis had failed to include it in her formal EEOC charge. The District Court for the Southern District of Texas agreed with this argument and dismissed the case, finding that they did not have jurisdiction over the religious discrimination claim. On appeal, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals disagreed and reversed the lower court’s decision. The Supreme Court granted certification on Fort Bend’s application to resolve this dispute among the federal courts.
The Supreme Court agreed with the Fifth Circuit and held that Title VII’s requirement that complainants file an EEOC charge prior to filing civil suit was not jurisdictional in nature. The Court explained that “‘when Congress does not rank a [prescription] as jurisdictional, courts should treat the restriction as nonjurisdictional in character.’” (quoting Arbaugh v. Y & H Corp., 546 U.S. 500, 515–16 (2006)). Instead, the Court explained, the charge-filing provision was merely intended to provide procedural instructions as a processing rule. Further, the Court ruled that any charge-filing deficiency “must be timely raised to come into play”. If a defendant neglects to raise an issue regarding an EEOC charge-filing deficiency within a reasonable time frame, they will forfeit the ability to pursue a dismissal related to such deficiency. In Davis’ case, Fort Bend’s failure to raise the filing deficiency at the outset of the civil action, or at least to raise it promptly, resulted in waiver of their ability to raise it years later.
This decision provides critical guidance for employees and employment attorneys around the country and should bring harmony to the manner that EEOC charge-filing deficiencies are treated around the country. While this does not create new causes of action, it will benefit some employees situated similarly to Ms. Davis. Despite this, it is still not advisable for any complainants to ignore their obligation to file a charge with the EEOC; in the words of Justice Ginsburg, “[a] Title VII complainant would be foolhardy consciously to take [such a] risk.” As the Court noted, “a rule may be mandatory without being jurisdictional.” Employees who believe that they have faced workplace discrimination and want to pursue a civil action should contact an experienced employment attorney to navigate the complexities of the requirements of Title VII, as well as other state and federal discrimination laws.