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Supreme Court Ruling Strengthens Discrimination Plaintiffs' Hands

This past June, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the requirement that a plaintiff filing suit under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 first file an administrative charge with a federal or state anti-discrimination agency is not “jurisdictional,” and thus can be waived if an employer does not raise the issue in a timely manner.

As a result of the Court’s holding, in Fort Bend County, Texas v. Davis, employers need to ensure that they are attuned to this issue from the outset of a Title VII lawsuit, so that they do not inadvertently waive their right to raise a plaintiff’s failure to file a charge as a defense.

Title VII’s Administrative Exhaustion Requirement

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 is the chief federal employment discrimination law, providing that employees may not be discriminated against on the basis of “race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.”

As part of the Title VII legislative scheme, Congress created a system under which employees alleging discrimination under the statute must file an administrative charge with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) or an equivalent state agency before bringing suit in federal court. Congress created this mandate – which is often referred to as the “administrative exhaustion” requirement – in order to afford administrative agencies an opportunity to investigate allegations of employment discrimination and encourage conciliation before court litigation is instituted.

Prior to the Supreme Court’s recent Davis holding, the U.S. Courts of Appeals had disagreed as to whether Title VII’s administrative exhaustion requirement is “jurisdictional” or “prudential.” This distinction is significant. A jurisdictional requirement goes to a federal court’s authority to adjudicate a case. Thus, a defendant may raise a jurisdictional defense at any point in a lawsuit, and if the court finds that it lacks subject-matter jurisdiction over the plaintiff’s claims, it is required to dismiss the lawsuit. Until the Supreme Court’s Davis decision, the U.S. Courts of Appeals for the Fourth and Tenth Circuits had interpreted Title VII’s administrative exhaustion requirement as jurisdictional.

By contrast, a prerequisite to filing suit that is not jurisdictional but merely prudential may be waived if a defendant does not raise the issue in a timely manner. As a majority of the federal Courts of Appeal had held – and as the Supreme Court ultimately agreed – this means that if a plaintiff brings a Title VII claim in federal court without first filing an administrative charge with the EEOC or the equivalent state agency, the defendant employer must raise the issue in its initial pleading, i.e., in a motion to dismiss or as an affirmative defense in the employer’s answer to the complaint. Otherwise, the employer risks waiving this defense altogether.

The Davis Case

The Supreme Court resolved this disagreement among the federal appellate courts through its recent Davis decision, holding that the administrative charge-filing requirement under Title VII is not jurisdictional.

In Davis, the plaintiff, Lois M. Davis, filed an administrative charge with the Texas Workforce Commission and the EEOC in March 2011, alleging sexual harassment and retaliation by her employer, Fort Bend County, Texas. Davis later attempted to supplement her initial charge to add a claim of discrimination on the basis of religion by handwriting the word “religion” on part of an intake questionnaire she had completed prior to filing her formal charge. She did not, however, make any changes to her administrative charge itself. Subsequently, in January 2012, Davis filed a lawsuit in federal district court in Texas alleging discrimination on the basis of religion, retaliation for reporting sexual harassment, and intentional infliction of emotional distress.

After years of litigation and appeals, the case ended up back in federal district court in 2016 with only Davis’s claim of discrimination based on religion remaining. At that stage, Fort Bend County argued for the first time that the court lacked jurisdiction to hear that claim because Davis had not alleged religion-based discrimination in her 2011 administrative charge. The district court agreed and dismissed Davis’s case.

Davis appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, which had not definitively ruled on whether Title VII’s exhaustion requirement was jurisdictional. After analyzing the language of Title VII and relevant precedent, the Fifth Circuit concluded that the charge-filing requirement was prudential rather than jurisdictional, and that Fort Bend County had forfeited the argument by failing to raise it in a timely manner.

Supreme Court’s Decision

The U.S. Supreme Court ultimately agreed with the Fifth Circuit, thereby clarifying for all courts hearing Title VII claims that the administrative-exhaustion requirement is not jurisdictional and can be waived.

In a unanimous opinion penned by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the Court held that Title VII’s charge-filing requirement is a “nonjurisdictional claim processing rule” that does not impact a federal court’s authority to hear a Title VII claim. The Court acknowledged, however, that filing an administrative charge is indeed “mandatory,” and that “plaintiffs have scant incentive to skirt [that] instruction,” since defendants “have good reason promptly to raise an objection that may rid them of the lawsuit against them.”

Implications For Employers

Based on the Supreme Court’s Davis decision, employers should make certain that whenever they are served with a court complaint raising claims under Title VII, they immediately determine, in consultation with employment counsel, whether the plaintiff exhausted his or her administrative remedies by filing a charge with the EEOC or an equivalent state agency. If the plaintiff did not do so, it is critical that the employer raise the issue in its first pleading – either as an affirmative defense in its answer or through a motion to dismiss the complaint. Otherwise, the employer risks waiving or forfeiting the argument entirely.

Although the Supreme Court’s decision does not have any impact on state law, employers should also assess whether any employment discrimination claims raised under state law have been properly exhausted, if state law requires exhaustion. For example, in Massachusetts, complainants alleging employment discrimination under state law must first file a charge with the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination (“MCAD”). Where a plaintiff fails to do so, an employer should raise the issue at its first opportunity, just as under Title VII.

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If you have any questions about the Davis decision or need any other assistance in responding to a claim of employment discrimination, please feel free to contact one of our experienced employment attorneys.