U.S. Supreme Court: Title VII Charge-Filing Requirement Is Not Jurisdictional

June 4, 2019 | Jonathan B. Bruno | Deborah M. Isaacson | Employment & Labor

On June 3, 2019, the United States Supreme Court ruled that Title VII’s charge-filing requirements, while mandatory, are not jurisdictional, and any objections will be deemed forfeited if an employer waits too long to raise them.

In Fort Bend County, Texas v. Davis, Respondent Davis filed a charge against her employer, Fort Bend County, with the EEOC alleging sexual harassment and retaliation in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Fort Bend fired Davis while her EEOC charge was pending because she failed to show up for work on a Sunday, attending a church event instead. Davis sought to supplement her EEOC charge by writing “religion” on an intake questionnaire form, but she did not amend her formal EEOC charge document. Title VII requires that a “charge . . . shall be filed” with the EEOC “by or on behalf of a person claiming to be aggrieved” within 180 days “after the alleged unlawful employment practice occur[s].”

Davis received a right to sue letter and commenced an action in Federal District Court alleging religious discrimination and retaliation for reporting sexual harassment. After lengthy litigation, Davis’ religious discrimination claim was the only claim that remained in the case. Fort Bend moved for summary judgment years after the action was commenced, and asserted, for the first time, that the court lacked jurisdiction to adjudicate her case because Davis’ EEOC charge did not state a claim for religious discrimination. The District Court agreed and dismissed Davis’ case holding that Davis had not satisfied the charge-filing requirement for her religious discrimination claim and that the requirement is jurisdictional and could not be forfeited. The Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit reversed, holding that the Title VII charge-filing requirement is not jurisdictional, but rather a prudential prerequisite to a lawsuit, which Fort Bend forfeited by waiting too long to raise the objection.

The issue before the U.S. Supreme Court was whether Title VII’s charge-filing requirement is jurisdictional. In a unanimous decision, the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed the Fifth Circuit’s decision and held that Title VII’s charge-filing requirement is not jurisdictional. Rather, it is a mandatory, non-jurisdictional claim-processing rule that a court must enforce if it is timely raised, but it is ordinarily forfeited if it is not asserted in a timely manner.

The Fort Bend County decision highlights the importance of raising a timely objection if Title VII’s claim-processing rules have not been followed. Since the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that Title VII’s charge-filing requirements are not jurisdictional, which means they can be waived unlike subject matter jurisdiction, an employer runs the risk of forfeiting a defense if it does not object in a timely manner. While the Supreme Court did not specify a time period during which a Title VII charge-filing objection must be raised, an employer would be prudent to raise such an objection by way of a pre-answer motion to dismiss.

For more information about the Supreme Court’s decision, please contact Jonathan Bruno or Deborah Isaacson.

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