This week, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a unanimous ruling in
Fort Bend County, Texas v. Davis
, No. 18-525 (June 3, 2019), which resolved a conflict among federal appellate courts by holding that the requirement that Title VII plaintiffs begin their claims before the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) is not jurisdictional. Instead, the Court held that the requirement, while mandatory, is merely a claim-processing rule.
The decision means that plaintiff Lois Davis may attempt to prove in court that her employer discriminated against her based on her religion, even if she did not first raise that claim before the agency.
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (“Title VII”) creates a multi-step process that employment-discrimination plaintiffs must follow before they may file suit. That process requires employees to begin by filing a charge with the EEOC or a state deferral agency. The EEOC then investigates the charge and attempts to resolve it informally if it finds reasonable cause to believe the charge is true. If informal resolution fails, the EEOC may file a lawsuit, but it is not empowered to resolve the case itself. Alternatively, if the EEOC’s investigation does not yield reasonable cause for the agency to proceed (or the plaintiff doesn’t wish to wait), the plaintiff may file suit on his/her own.
A plaintiff’s failure to complete this process before filing suit is a ground to dismiss their case. That is what Fort Bend County sought in this case. However, Fort Bend County waited more than five years to raise its failure-to-exhaust defense (instead of raising at the outset). During this five-year period, Davis’ case wound its way from the district court, to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit, and back again. The 5th Circuit decided that by waiting so long, Fort Bend had waived its right to raise its failure-to-exhaust argument.
Fort Bend’s response was that Title VII’s exhaustion requirement was jurisdictional – i.e., that federal courts lack the authority to hear unexhausted Title VII claims without exception, and failure-to-exhaust arguments cannot be waived. But the Supreme Court’s unanimous opinion (authored by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg) rejected that argument, concluding instead that the exhaustion requirement was a “claim-processing” rule that could be waived under exceptional circumstances.
The Court held that true jurisdictional requirements are generally to be found either in jurisdictional provisions of statutes, or in Supreme Court cases to which Congress has not responded with clarifying legislation. Outside of those narrow categories, mandatory claim-processing rules are nonjurisdictional, meaning that they can be waived when defendants do not raise them properly.
The result of this opinion is that Congress may impose jurisdictional requirements, but it must speak clearly in order to do so. And, the court continued, Title VII’s exhaustion requirement does not meet that standard for the following reasons:
While Title VII contains a jurisdictional provision, the exhaustion requirement is located elsewhere in the statute.
Title VII differs from some other statutory schemes with jurisdictional exhaustion requirements because the EEOC lacks the authority to adjudicate discrimination charges – if an employer does not agree to informal resolution, the EEOC’s recourse is to file a lawsuit.
The court noted that plaintiffs have numerous incentives to exhaust their administrative remedies even if that requirement is not jurisdictional, because most defendants will properly raise a failure-to-exhaust defense.
The ruling underscores the need for employers to carefully review complaints to ensure that they are in line with the administrative charges. Any failure by an employee to exhaust the administrative remedies provided by Title VII should be timely raised in an answer or motion to dismiss so that the objection is not waived.
A copy of the Supreme Court’s opinion can be found
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