In a case that garnered big headlines, the Supreme Court weighed in yesterday on whether a claimant’s failure to amend her EEOC charge divests the federal court from hearing part of her Title VII claim. While the decision makes some strong statements about the purpose of an EEOC charge in Title VII litigation, it is not likely to change the landscape as much as the press buzz may indicate.

The Complicated Lower Case Saga

Ms. Lois Davis worked as an IT person for Fort Bend County. She made a claim of sexual harassment against her supervisor, Fort Bend investigated, and the supervisor resigned. After the resignation, Ms. Davis claimed that the county started retaliating against her for reporting the harassment. Because of the retaliation, she filed an EEOC charge. While the charge was pending, she was asked to report to work on a Sunday. Ms. Davis said that she had church duties that day, but she was told to show up or be fired. She chose church and was subsequently fired.

Ms. Davis attempted to amend her EEOC charge by simply writing “religion” on part of the charge document. She also added that she was terminated, but did not formally change the charge to include the alleged religious discrimination. She later filed suit against the county for religious discrimination and retaliation for reporting sexual harassment. The county moved for summary judgment, which was later appealed to the Fifth Circuit and all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. When the case came back, the only claim left was the one on religious discrimination.

Although years had passed in the litigation, it was at this later stage that the county first decided to move to dismiss the case, claiming that Ms. Davis had not properly amended her EEOC charge to include religious discrimination. The District Court granted the county’s motion to dismiss finding that her failure to properly file the religion claim with the EEOC was jurisdictional and doomed her claim. The Fifth Circuit reversed finding that the charge-filing requirement is not jurisdictional but is instead “a prudential prerequisite to suit” and further found that the county waived its defense because it waited too long to raise it. The county appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The Jurists on Jurisdiction

The Supreme Court’s opinion pointed out that the word “jurisdiction” has “many, too many, meanings” and that they are trying to stay away from using that term. Basically, the word should only apply when describing the types of cases a court can hear and the classes of people over whom it can rule. True jurisdictional challenges should be unique and can be raised at any point during the litigation.

The Supreme Court noted that there is a big difference between a jurisdictional mandate and a non-jurisdictional claim-processing rule. A rule simply seeks to promote the orderly progress of litigation by imposing certain procedural steps. A claim-processing rule can be “mandatory” in the sense that a court must enforce it if the party properly raises it. However, as was important in this case, a party asserting a claim-processing rule can waive that defense if it “waits too long to raise the point.” The Supreme Court cited numerous examples of these claim-processing rules in realms such as copyright and agency-rulemaking.

Ultimately, the Supreme Court noted that if Congress wanted to make the EEOC charge process a jurisdictional requirement, they could. However, at this point, the Supreme Court held that the charge-filing requirement was not jurisdictional, but instead was a mandatory procedural requirement and that the county waived its right to assert that defense by waiting too long to raise it.

What Does This Mean?

It is likely that this decision will cause a good bit of confusion in the near future. Claimants who have incomplete charge documents, or didn’t file charges at all, will likely now try to use this decision to avoid having their claims dismissed for not following the charge rules. However, it is very important to remember that U.S. Supreme Court did not throw out all those requirements. It simply said that since the EEOC charge-filing procedure is a mandatory claim-processing rule, it is up to the employer to raise that defense early. An employer cannot wait until later to try to bring up the lack of proper claim-filing as a jurisdictional defense.

This case again shows how important it is to pay attention to the EEOC charge in every case and to deal with any deficiencies early in the litigation. The Davis case does not prohibit an employer from filing a motion to dismiss on all or part of a Title VII suit because the charging document does not adequately describe a claim. Just don’t wait!