Supreme Court: Title VII’s Requirements Not Jurisdictional

Employment Law
 

In a unanimous decision, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Title VII’s charge-filing precondition to suit is not a jurisdictional requirement and is instead a procedural prescription that is subject to forfeiture, refusing to permit an employer to use the plaintiff’s alleged failure to exhaust administrative remedies as a bar to suit.

An information technology supervisor for Fort Bend County, Lois Davis filed a complaint with the human resources department alleging that the information technology director had sexually harassed and assaulted her. An investigation led to the director’s resignation. But according to Davis, her supervisor—who was friends with the former director—began retaliating against her.

When Davis informed her supervisor that she could not work on a specific Sunday because of a “previous religious commitment” to attend a special church service, her supervisor refused to approve the absence. Davis attended the service anyway, and Fort Bend terminated her employment.

Davis then filed a charge with the Texas Workforce Commission (which was shared with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC)) alleging sexual harassment and retaliation. She later amended her intake questionnaire to include religious discrimination but did not amend her charge. After receiving her right-to-sue letter, Davis filed her lawsuit in district court alleging both retaliation and religious discrimination.

A district court granted summary judgment in favor of the employer on all claims, but the U.S. Court of Appeals, Fifth Circuit reversed, finding genuine disputes of material fact.

On remand, the employer filed a second motion for summary judgment, this time arguing that Davis failed to exhaust her administrative remedies on her religious discrimination claim. Holding that administrative exhaustion is a jurisdictional prerequisite in Title VII cases, the district court granted the motion.

The Fifth Circuit reversed for a second time, and Fort Bend filed a writ of certiorari with the Supreme Court. The justices sided with the plaintiff.

“We hold that Title VII’s charge-filing instruction is not jurisdictional, a term generally reserved to describe the classes of cases a court may entertain (subject-matter jurisdiction) or the persons over whom a court may exercise adjudicatory authority (personal jurisdiction),” Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote. “Prerequisites to suit like Title VII’s charge-filing instruction are not of that character; they are properly ranked among the array of claim-processing rules that must be timely raised to come into play.”

For many years, the Court has characterized “an array of mandatory claim-processing rules and other preconditions to relief” as nonjurisdictional, from the Copyright Act’s requirement that parties register their copyrights to the Railway Labor Act’s direction to parties in certain railroad labor disputes to attempt settlement.

“While not demanding that Congress ‘incant magic words’ to render a prescription jurisdictional, the Court has clarified that it would ‘leave the ball in Congress’ court,’” the justices explained, respecting explicit statements from the legislature that a prescription counts as jurisdictional, but absent such clarity, treating the restriction as nonjurisdictional in character.

“Title VII’s charge-filing requirement is not of jurisdictional cast,” Justice Ginsburg said, speaking to a party’s procedural obligations. “They require complainants to submit information to the EEOC and to wait a specified period before commencing a civil action. Like kindred provisions directing parties to raise objections in agency rulemaking, follow procedures governing copyright registration or attempt settlement, Title VII’s charge-filing requirement is a processing rule, albeit a mandatory one, not a jurisdictional prescription delineating the adjudicatory authority of courts.”

Fort Bend attempted to sway the justices by arguing that making the requirement jurisdictional would further the congressional purposes of Title VII, such as encouraging conciliation.

“But a prescription does not become jurisdictional whenever it ‘promotes important congressional objectives,’” the Court wrote. “And recognizing that the charge-filing requirement is nonjurisdictional gives plaintiffs scant incentive to skirt the instruction. Defendants, after all, have good reason promptly to raise an objection that may rid them of the lawsuit filed against them. A Title VII complainant would be foolhardy consciously to take the risk that the employer would forgo a potentially dispositive defense.”

A rule may be mandatory without being jurisdictional, Justice Ginsburg concluded, and Title VII’s charge-filing requirement fits that bill.

To read the opinion in Fort Bend County v. Davis, click here.

Why it matters: For employers, the message is clear: raise the issue of a plaintiff’s failure to exhaust administrative remedies, or waive it. The unanimous Supreme Court opinion won’t change practices in the majority of courts that have considered the issue, as the justices affirmed the position taken by courts in the First, Second, Fifth, Sixth, Seventh, Eighth, Ninth and D.C. Circuits.