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eLABORate: Supreme Court Limits Employers' Defense to Job Discrimination Lawsuits

June 03, 2019

In a unanimous June 3, 2019 ruling, the United States Supreme Court significantly limited employers’ ability to have job discrimination claims dismissed when employees procedurally fail to file a Charge of Discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) or similar state agency.

Under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and related federal employment anti-discrimination statutes, an employee believing they have been the victim of workplace discrimination must first file an administrative Charge of Discrimination before they have the right to file a lawsuit. Employers are often able to have such lawsuits dismissed by asserting the procedural defense that the employee failed to exhaust administrative remedies.

Prior to the Supreme Court’s ruling in Fort Bend County, Texas v. Davis, there had been a deep split among the U.S. Courts of Appeal as to whether pre-suit exhaustion of claims, by filing an EEOC Charge, was simply just an element of a discrimination claim, or whether it was jurisdictional, meaning that a failure to file a Charge before a lawsuit would deprive a federal court of jurisdiction and require dismissal of the lawsuit.

Writing for the Court, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg stated: “[w]e hold that Title VII’s charge-filing instruction is not jurisdictional, a term generally reserved to describe the classes of cases a court may entertain (subject-matter jurisdiction) or the persons over whom a court may exercise adjudicatory authority (personal jurisdiction).”

The case began in 2010 when Fort Bend County employee Lois Davis complained she was being sexually harassed by a supervisor, who subsequently resigned. In a subsequent EEOC Charge, she alleged she was retaliated against by another supervisor, for reporting the harassment. While her retaliation claim was pending, the supervisor required her to come to work on Sunday, and when Davis failed to show because of a prior church commitment, she was terminated. She never amended her EEOC Charge to include a charge of religious discrimination. The federal District Court granted the County’s Motion for Summary Judgment, but on appeal, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit reversed the dismissal of Davis’ religious discrimination claim and sent the case back to the District Court.

Years later in the litigation, for the first time, the County asserted that dismissal was proper because the District Court did not have jurisdiction because Davis’ religious discrimination claim had not been asserted in her EEOC Charge. The District Court agreed and dismissed the case. The Fifth Circuit again reversed the District Court, holding that Title VII’s charge-filing requirement is not jurisdictional and that the County had waived the defense by waiting too long to assert the procedural defense, prompting the County to appeal to the Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court’s ruling does not deprive employers from continuing to move to dismiss such claims because an employee has failed to timely file a charge, but as noted in the Opinion, it serves as a warning for employers not to delay in promptly asserting such a defense:

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.