U.S. Supreme Court Clarifies Procedures for Federal Employment Discrimination Law ClaimsSupreme Court Unanimously Holds That Title VII’s Pre-Suit Administrative Charge Requirement Is Not Jurisdictional and Can Be Waived If Employers Do Not Timely Object. June 4, 2019
In 2012, Davis filed suit in the United States District Court for the Southern District of Texas alleging retaliation and religious discrimination under Title VII. The district court granted Fort Bend’s motion for summary judgment in 2013, but the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed as to Davis’s religious discrimination claim. Only then, after four years of litigation, did Fort Bend County argue that the district court lacked jurisdiction over Davis’s claims because she failed to state her religious discrimination claim in her administrative charge based on her failure to add the claim to the formal charge document.
The district court held that the exhaustion requirement is jurisdictional, which therefore cannot be forfeited, and that Davis had failed to exhaust her administrative remedies. The Fifth Circuit reversed, holding that the exhaustion requirement is a “prudential prerequisite” to suit rather than a jurisdictional requirement, and that Fort Bend County had forfeited its right to bring this assertion due to its four-year delay.
The decision contributed to a split among the courts of appeals over whether Title VII’s charge-filing requirement is jurisdictional. Eight circuit courts, the First, Second, Third, Sixth, Seventh, Tenth, and D.C. Circuits, had held that the requirement is nonjurisdictional, and three circuit courts, the Fourth, Ninth, and Eleventh Circuits, had held that the requirement is jurisdictional.
The Court observed that the word “jurisdictional” is “generally reserved for describing the classes of cases a court may consider (subject matter jurisdiction) and the persons over whom the court may exercise adjudicatory authority (personal jurisdiction).” The Court explained that rules may be jurisdictional if Congress “incorporat[es] them into a jurisdictional provision”—such as a provision providing that “[t]he district courts shall have original jurisdiction. . . .”—or if “a long line of Supreme Court decisions left undisturbed by Congress attache[s] a jurisdictional label to the prescription.” The Court emphasized that jurisdictional arguments are “unique” and may “wast[e] court resources and disturbingly disarm litigations” when “tardy.” The Court then identified a number of nonjurisdictional claim-processing rules that it considered comparable to the Title VII claim-processing rule and that are subject to waiver, including preconditions under the Copyright Act, the Railway Labor Act, and the Clean Air Act. The Court found that, although Congress need not use “magic words” to render a provision jurisdictional, the Court will “leave the ball in Congress’ court” and will find that “when Congress does not rank a [prescription] as jurisdictional, courts should treat the restriction as nonjurisdictional in character.”
In this case, the Court held that Title VII’s charge-filing requirement is “not of jurisdictional cast.” The Court noted that Title VII has a separate jurisdictional provision and found that Title VII’s charge-filing provisions “do not speak to a court’s authority” or “refer in any way to the jurisdiction of the district courts.” Rather, the charge-filing provision “speak[s] to . . . a party’s procedural obligations.”
The Court rejected Fort Bend County’s argument that the charge-filing requirement is jurisdictional in nature due to the “congressional purposes embodied in the Title VII scheme,” principally the goals of fostering conciliation and giving the EEOC the opportunity to file suit in the first instance. Rather, the Court explained that the promotion of “important congressional objectives” does not confer jurisdictional status on a particular prescription and found that “a rule may be mandatory without being jurisdictional, and Title VII’s charge-filing requirement fits that bill.”
Effect on Employers Seeking Dismissal of Claims. The decision, by resolving a deep circuit split, provides significant clarity to courts, employers and employees. Upon being served with a complaint, employers should promptly consider whether the employee properly exhausted the administrative requirements and if not must timely assert the defense, or else risk the waiver of it.
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