The U.S. Supreme Court recently issued a decision limiting the time in which employers can raise certain defenses to claims brought under Title VII.
In Fort Bend County, Texas v. Davis, the plaintiff, Lois Davis, was an employee of Fort Bend County, Texas. In 2010, she filed an EEOC charge against Fort Bend, alleging retaliation, after she had reported sexual harassment in the workplace. While the charge was pending, Davis was fired for failing to report to work on a Sunday, when she was at a church event. In an effort to supplement her pending EEOC charge, Davis wrote "religion" on the EEOC intake questionnaire portion, but made no change to the formal charge document.
Litigation ensued and the case went to the appellate court, where it was reversed in part and sent the case back to the trial court, with only the religious discrimination claim remaining. For the first time, Fort Bend moved to dismiss because Davis failed to include religious discrimination in her EEOC charge. The trial court granted the motion, holding that Title VII’s EEOC charge-filing requirement was "jurisdictional," and therefore non-waivable. On appeal, the Fifth Circuit disagreed, so Fort Bend appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.
In an opinion delivered by Justice Ginsberg, the Court held that the charge-filing requirement is a mandatory "processing rule," not a jurisdictional requirement. Accordingly, the Court determined that Fort Bend had waived its objection to Davis' failure to include religion in her EEOC charge.
The distinction between a jurisdictional requirement and a processing rule is significant because a processing rule may be waived by a defendant who fails to timely raise the argument. Conversely, challenges to subject-matter jurisdiction can be raised at any point and courts must consider them sua sponte, even if the defendant does not argue the issue. Thus, if the rule requiring employees to file charges with the EEOC prior to filing suit was jurisdictional, an employer could wait years into the litigation to raise the defense – as Fort Bend had done.
The case leaves Title VII’s administrative remedies requirement intact, meaning that employees must still bring their claims to the EEOC or a similar state agency before filing lawsuits. However, the ruling escalates the penalty for employers who overlook non-jurisdictional defenses at the initial pleading stage of litigation. The case is a prudent reminder for practitioners to examine all possible arguments at the outset of litigation.