A recent SCOTUS ruling puts employers on notice when it comes to Title VII lawsuits.
In case you missed it, earlier this month the U.S. Supreme Court handed down its decision in Fort Bend County v. Davis, a case that addresses whether Title VII’s administrative-exhaustion requirement is a jurisdictional prerequisite in a discrimination lawsuit.
“The Supreme Court unanimously upheld the right of workers to access the courts,” says Karyn L. Bass Ehler, senior counsel and head of Grant & Eisenhofer’s civil rights practice group in Chicago. “This is a victory for victims of employment discrimination. It is an important decision from the Supreme Court that Title VII’s administrative filing requirement before suing is not ‘jurisdictional.’ ”
In the Fort Bend County case, Lois Davis filed an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission charge against her employer, Fort Bend County, Texas, alleging sexual harassment and retaliation. Davis later attempted to supplement her EEOC charge by handwriting “religion” on a form called an “intake questionnaire,” but she did not amend the formal charge document.
After years of litigation in federal court, only the religion-based discrimination claim remained in the case. Fort Bend then asserted for the first time that the District Court lacked jurisdiction to adjudicate Davis’ case because her EEOC charge did not state a religion-based discrimination claim. The District Court agreed and granted Fort Bend’s motion to dismiss Davis’ suit. On appeal from the dismissal, the Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit reversed. Title VII’s charge-filing requirement, the Court of Appeals held, is not jurisdictional, a finding the Supreme Court today upheld.
(The Supreme Court’s full opinion can be viewed here.)
Ehler calls the decision “a significant victory for victims of employment discrimination.”
However, she says, employees must still be careful to fulfill the administrative requirements of filing their employment-discrimination claims with the EEOC or a similar state agency first.
“The court was clear that it is a procedural obligation and not jurisdictional,” she says, “because the employer may use the employee’s failure to file with the EEOC or state agency as a defense to an employee’s Title VII claim.”
As a result of this decision, Ehler says, employers must proceed cautiously when dealing with these types of legal situations.
“If [employers] do not raise the failure to exhaust the administrative requirements as a defense in the first instance—either in their answer to the complaint or the motion to dismiss—the courts will now treat that defense as forever waived,” she says.