According to the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals, verifying an EEOC charge is not a jurisdictional requirement, necessary to give the federal courts the authority to resolve the case; rather, the Court ruled that verifying an EEOC charge is a condition precedent to filing a Title VII lawsuit in federal court, which may be waived if the employer does not challenge it when first responding to the lawsuit. Gad v. Kansas State University, No. 14-3050 (10th Cir. May 27, 2015).
Verification of EEOC Charge
Title VII, the federal statute that prohibits employers from discriminating on the basis of race, color, national origin, sex or religion, requires that claimants submit a charge to the EEOC prior to filing suit in federal court. That submission must be “in writing under oath or affirmation.” EEOC regulations require that the written charge be signed and verified, which means sworn under penalty of perjury or affirmed before a notary public, an EEOC representative or another person authorized to administer oaths.
So what happens if the individual asserting discrimination does not verify his or her EEOC charge prior to filing suit? Does the employer-defendant have to raise the issue of the unverified charge, or does the lack of compliance with the verification requirement mean that the federal court lacks jurisdiction to hear the case at all?
Verification Not a Jurisdictional Prerequisite to Title VII Lawsuit
Not every defect in the administrative process defeats jurisdiction, rendering federal courts without authority to hear the case, pointed out the Court. After discussing previous U.S. Supreme Court cases that examined Title VII jurisdictional issues, the Tenth Circuit focused on four key points:
- Whether a Title VII statutory requirement is jurisdictional or not depends on whether it is written within Title VII’s jurisdictional subsection – here, the verification requirement is contained in a separate provision that does not deal with jurisdiction of the district courts;
- Because non-lawyers initiate Title VII processes, courts should not interpret procedural rules in a way that deprives individuals of their rights under the law – here, interpreting the verification requirement as jurisdictional might lead to inadvertent forfeiture of Title VII rights;
- Verification is intended to protect employers from the burden of defending against frivolous claims or claims of which they had no notice – here, because verification remains a Title VII requirement, an employer may raise the plaintiff’s failure to satisfy the requirement as a defense, which serves to protect employers; and
- Failure to verify a document as required by a federal rule should not render the document fatally defective – here, if a claimant’s failure to verify destroyed subject-matter jurisdiction, it would make the charge fatally defective by destroying a court’s ability to hear the case at all.
Based on its analysis of these four points, the Court concluded that the EEOC verification requirement is not jurisdictional.
Lack of Verification As Defense
Because verification of the EEOC charge remains a Title VII requirement, an employer defending a Title VII discrimination claim may raise a plaintiff’s failure to satisfy the requirement and seek dismissal of the case on that basis. The Court likened the verification requirement to other Title VII requirements that have been deemed non-jurisdictional, waivable defenses. For example, compliance with the statutory time limit for filing EEOC charges is prerequisite to bringing a Title VII suit in federal court that has been ruled to be subject to waiver and estoppel. Similarly, TitleVII’s application to employers with 15 or more employees has been determined to be a non-jurisdictional requirement that is waivable by an employer. Consequently, if an employer fails to raise a known verification defect during the EEOC proceeding, it likely waives the requirement and the case proceeds.
Waiver Left For Further Analysis
Because the district court in Gad had dismissed the plaintiff’s case for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction, it had not examined the issue of waiver of the defense. The Tenth Circuit noted that Gad had not argued that her employer, Kansas State University (KSU), had waived the verification requirement. (In its answer, KSU stated generally that Gad had failed to exhaust her administrative remedies but did not specifically mention her failure to verify her EEOC charge.) Instead, Gad argued only that the EEOC had waived the verification requirement, due to an EEOC investigator allegedly telling Gad that she did not need to return the signed EEOC form.
In reversing on the jurisdictional issue, the Tenth Circuit sent the case back to the district court to determine whether the verification requirement had been waived. The Court stated that despite the conclusion that an employer may waive the verification defect, it “does not necessarily follow that the EEOC can waive the requirement unilaterally.” But, the Court noted that there may be extreme circumstances where non-compliance with the verification requirement might be excused, such as negligent EEOC conduct that would mislead a reasonable layperson into thinking that he need not verify the charge. The Court refused to define the scope or parameters of a waiver rule, as that specific issue was not before the Court.
What This Case Means to You
When faced with a Title VII lawsuit, get a copy of the EEOC file at the earliest possible moment and check whether the claimant’s EEOC charge was verified. If not verified, you should seek dismissal of the proceeding on the basis that the claimant failed to verify his or her EEOC. If you choose to respond to the merits of the lawsuit ,without asserting lack of verification as a defense, you have likely waived that requirement.
It does not, however, appear that you should always raise the issue of lack of verification prior to your first response to the federal lawsuit. That is because an EEOC regulation permits “an otherwise timely filer to verify a charge after the time for filing has expired” and to cure technical defects or omissions, including failure to verify the charge. Consequently, if you point out the defect at any time prior to the claimant filing the lawsuit, the claimant will likely be able to amend their charge to correct the verification defect. But you should always raise the defense before responding to the merits of the charge of discrimination to ensure that you do not waive the defense.
Less clear, however, is the issue of an EEOC waiver of the verification requirement. Because the Court did not define the circumstances, if any, under which a claimant may argue that the EEOC did not ask for or require verification, we must wait for further guidance before knowing whether a claimant may proceed with a Title VII lawsuit even after you’ve raised the unverified charge defense.