On June 3, 2019, the Supreme Court held that filing a charge of discrimination is not a “jurisdictional” prerequisite to filing suit under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. See Fort Bend County v. Davis, Slip Op. No. 18-525 (June 3, 2019). Although this case deals with what sounds like an obscure legal issue, it is of great practical importance to employers. In short, it means that employers defending against claims of discrimination under Title VII must diligently assert all procedural defenses they may have as early as possible. Otherwise, a failure to assert a defense may allow the plaintiff-employee’s claim to go forward, even if the employee has not technically complied with Title VII’s mandatory charge-filing procedures.

Lois M. Davis worked in the County of Fort Bend, Texas’s IT department (the “County”). In 2010, Ms. Davis submitted an “intake questionnaire” to the EEOC and filed a charge of discrimination against the County. Ms. Davis alleged that her supervisor was retaliating against her for making a report of sexual harassment to the human resources department. While her charge of discrimination was pending, her supervisor instructed Ms. Davis to work a Sunday shift, and Ms. Davis stated she could not work because of a commitment at church. Ms. Davis did not comply with the instruction to work on Sunday, and was ultimately fired by the County for failing to show up for work on the Sunday shift. “Religion” was not listed in her original charge of discrimination as the basis for her claims under Title VII. However, Ms. Davis did later supplement her “intake questionnaire” by handwriting in the word “religion” under the heading titled “Employment Harms or Actions.”

In 2012, Ms. Davis sued the County under Title VII for unlawful religious discrimination and retaliation. The County initially prevailed on summary judgment before the United States District Court for the Southern District of Texas, but a federal appellate court disagreed, and sent the case back on the religious discrimination claim. Then, after years of litigation, the County for the first time argued that the district court did not have jurisdiction over Ms. Davis’s religious discrimination claim because she failed to properly allege that claim in her original charge of discrimination. The district court granted the County’s motion to dismiss, the Fifth Circuit reversed, and the Supreme Court of the United States stepped in to resolve a circuit split over whether Title VII’s charge-filing rules are “jurisdictional.”

A unanimous Supreme Court ruled in favor of Ms. Davis and concluded that Title VII’s charge-filing procedures are “mandatory claim-processing rules,” not “jurisdictional prerequisites.” As a result, “an objection based on [charge-filing procedures] may be forfeited ‘if the party asserting the rule waits too long to raise the point.’” Id. at 7. Because the County had failed to raise its defense earlier in the proceedings, Ms. Davis will be able to present her claim of religious discrimination to a jury.

Key Takeaways

  1. Plaintiff-employees that want to file suit under Title VII must comply with the statute’s charge-filing procedures. However, Title VII’s charge-filing rules are not “jurisdictional.” This means that a Court will not require a plaintiff-employee to follow the procedures if the defendant-employer does not timely and properly object to a failure to follow those procedures. Therefore, employers should ensure that the counsel handling any discrimination litigation on their behalf does not wait to raise any procedural defects in the employee’s submissions to the EEOC.
  2. State or local anti-discrimination laws may treat this issue differently. For example, under the newly amended Missouri Human Rights Act, the timely filing of a charge of discrimination is a jurisdictional condition precedent to filing suit under the MHRA. See § 213.075.1.