Fort Bend County v. Davis: SCOTUS Bends Employers' Defense to Title VII Claims, But Doesn't Break It
June 13, 2019
By Audrey E. Chastain
On June 3, 2019, the United States Supreme Court ("Supreme Court") unanimously held in Fort Bend County v. Davis that federal courts may be able to hear claims brought under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (“Title VII”) without the complainants having first brought their claims to the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) or the relevant state agencies. The Supreme Court determined that Title VII's charge-filing precondition to filing suit is not a “jurisdictional” requirement, and an employer’s failure-to-exhaust-administrative-remedies defense is subject to waiver if not timely raised. Below, we summarize Title VII law and the Davis decision and what this decision means (and doesn’t mean) for employers.
Title VII and the Charge-Filing Precondition to Suit
Title VII requires an aggrieved worker, or someone on the worker’s behalf, to file a charge of discrimination with the EEOC within 180 days after the alleged unlawful employment practice occurred. See 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-5(b), (e)(1). Where an alleged unlawful employment practice occurred in a state or political subdivision that authorizes a state or local authority (collectively “agency”) to grant or seek relief from such practice, a complainant must file his or her charge with the agency first, within 300 days after the alleged unlawful employment practice occurred. Id. at § 2000e-5(c). Otherwise, if the agency and the EEOC have a work-sharing agreement, the complainant may file the charge with either the agency or the EEOC. See 29 C.F.R. § 1601.13.
After receiving a complainant’s charge of discrimination, the EEOC or the agency will serve notice of the charge on the complainant’s employer and initiate an investigation into the allegations. 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-5(b). If the EEOC or the agency determines that there is “not reasonable cause to believe that the charge is true,” it must dismiss the charge. Id. The EEOC or the agency must then provide the complainant with a “right-to-sue” notice within 180 days after the charge was filed. Id. at § 2000e-5(f)(1); 29 C.F.R. § 1601.28. Upon receiving the right-to-sue notice, the complainant has 90 days to commence a civil action against the employer. 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-5(f)(1).
The plaintiff/respondent, Lois M. Davis, worked for the defendant/petitioner, Fort Bend County, in its information technology department. In 2010, she reported to the human resources department that the information technology department director was sexually harassing her. The director resigned during Fort Bend’s investigation, but Davis then claimed that her supervisor began retaliating against her for having reported the sexual harassment. In early 2011, Davis submitted an “intake questionnaire,” followed by a charge to the Texas Workforce Commission, alleging that she was discriminated against based on her sex and retaliated against for reporting the sexual harassment. The documents were then relayed to the EEOC, pursuant to a work-sharing agreement.
Meanwhile, Fort Bend required Davis to report to work on a Sunday; however, Davis informed her supervisor that she had a church commitment that day, but could arrange for another employee to take her place. Davis’ supervisor allegedly told her that she would be subject to termination if she did not come to work on Sunday. When she did not report to work, Fort Bend terminated her employment.
After her termination, Davis attempted to supplement her charge she filed with the EEOC by handwriting “religion” on her intake questionnaire, but she did not formally amend her charge to include religious discrimination.
In January 2012, Davis filed suit, alleging discrimination based upon religion and retaliation for reporting sexual harassment. In 2013, the district court granted Fort Bend’s summary judgment motion, but the Fifth Circuit reversed the district court’s decision as to Davis’ religious discrimination claim in 2014. Fort Bend then filed a petition for certiorari, which the Supreme Court denied in 2015.
Eventually, once the case returned to the district court in 2015, Fort Bend moved to dismiss the complaint based on the court’s lack of jurisdiction—for the first time, Fort Bend argued that the district court could not hear Davis’ religious discrimination claim because Davis had not satisfied the charge-filing precondition for that claim. The district court granted Fort Bend’s motion, holding that the precondition was jurisdictional, meaning that the court had no authority to hear the case.
The Fifth Circuit reversed the district court’s holding, finding that the precondition was not jurisdictional, but rather a “prudential prerequisite to suit, forfeited in Davis’ case because Fort Bend did not raise it until after ‘an entire round of appeals all the way to the Supreme Court.’” Again, Fort Bend filed a petition for certiorari.
This time, the Supreme Court granted Fort Bend’s petition on the question of whether Title VII’s charge-filing precondition to suit is a mandatory claim-processing rule subject to forfeiture, or a jurisdictional prescription. If found to be jurisdictional, federal courts would lack subject-matter jurisdiction over the case when the charge-filing requirement is not satisfied—thus, the defense could be raised by the defendant at any time in the litigation. If found to be nonjurisdictional, the defense could be waived if not timely raised.
In an opinion authored by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the Supreme Court stressed that “[a] claim-processing rule may be ‘mandatory’ in the sense that a court must enforce the rule if a party ‘properly raise[s]’ it,” but “an objection based on a mandatory claim-processing rule may be forfeited ‘if the party asserting the rule waits too long to raise the point.’” Fort Bend County, Texas v. Davis, 587 U.S. ____ (2019) (internal citations omitted). Thus, although the charge-filing requirement is a mandatory processing rule, it is “not a jurisdictional prescription delineating the adjudicatory authority of courts.” Id.
What This Means For Employers
This outcome of this case does not significantly impact employers. It does not eliminate the mandatory charge-filing requirement, nor the requirement that the charge identify all bases for the alleged discrimination. It does not eliminate the defense of a plaintiff’s failure to exhaust administrative remedies. This case simply serves as a cautionary tale and reminder to all employers to assert the defense of failure to administratively exhaust a claim early on in the litigation—and not to raise it for the first time three years into the case.
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