Sometimes the stars and planets align, and all nine justices of the U.S. Supreme Court actually agree on a point of law and issue a unanimous ruling. A recent example was its June 3 decision in Fort Bend County, Texas v. Davis, which will impact the legal defense strategy for employers in discrimination litigation.
The Davis case raised an important question regarding the administrative agency charge-filing requirements for discrimination and retaliation claims pursued under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. Ultimately, the court held the charge-filing requirements set out in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act are “procedural,” rather than “jurisdictional.”
While this might sound like merely a semantic change in legal terminology, the Davis decision and its new classification of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission charge-filing procedure will have a major impact on the legal defense strategy for employers.
Reversal of Title VII Precedent
Title VII generally prohibits discrimination in employment on the basis of race, color, religion, sex and national origin, as well as unlawful retaliation against employees who engage in protected activities. As a prerequisite to seeking damages in federal court, Title VII requires that a person alleging discrimination or retaliation first file an administrative charge detailing their allegations with the EEOC, or an equivalent state agency, and obtain a Right-to-Sue letter before filing suit.
The charge-filing requirement, which necessitates would-be plaintiffs to exhaust their administrative remedies, was designed to encourage the resolution of employment discrimination disputes without the need for litigation.
Under decades of prior precedent, this exhaustion of remedies requirement was considered “jurisdictional,” meaning that the failure to do so would be legally fatal to a subsequent discrimination action since the court would not properly have subject matter jurisdiction to even entertain the suit.
In Davis, the nine justices reviewed the language of Title VII and unanimously determined that the charge-filing requirements of the statute are simple procedural rules designed to streamline the process and put employers on notice of allegations of discrimination. The Supreme Court found nothing in the charge-filing provisions that speak to a federal court’s jurisdictional authority to adjudicate a Title VII claim.
The opinion notes that the term “jurisdiction” has “many, too many, meanings,” and should be used sparingly. The Supreme Court concluded that, “Title VII’s charge-filing requirement is a processing rule, albeit a mandatory one, not a jurisdictional prescription delineating the adjudicatory authority of courts.”
Takeaways for Employers
The consequence of this change in definition from “jurisdictional” to “procedural” is critical to employers in discrimination litigation.
Whereas a pre-suit requirement is jurisdictional, courts may not hear a case unless the requirement has been met, and a defendant/employer may raise challenges to the court’s exercise of subject matter jurisdiction at any time during litigation to obtain dismissal of the action.
However, under the court’s determination in Davis —that the claim-filing requirement is merely a procedural precondition to filing a lawsuit—a defendant/employer must now raise a plaintiff’s failure to comply with the charge-filing requirements as a defense early on in the litigation, or may otherwise be unable to rely upon that procedural defense.
As a result of Davis, individuals alleging discrimination under Title VII must still file a charge with the EEOC or appropriate state agency within 180 days of the alleged discrimination. However, federal courts are no longer required to dismiss claims under Title VII for lack of jurisdiction, even if the employee fails to file a charge with the appropriate agency, provided the defendant / employer does not raise the issue as a defense to the employee’s claim in a proper and timely manner.
Counsel for employers must now raise a plaintiff’s failure to exhaust administrative remedies early in litigation through motion or affirmative defense, or otherwise risk losing a significant legal defense to a Title VII claim for their clients.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. or its owners.
Tom Loffredo is managing director in GrayRobinson’s Fort Lauderdale office where he practices commercial litigation. He focuses on employment and labor matters on behalf of management and corporate clients, banking and finance litigation, appellate practice and class-action litigation.
Sophie Labarge is part of GrayRobinson’s Summer Associate program. She is a law student at the Nova Southeastern University Shepard Broad College of Law.