Supreme Court Mitigates Use of Charge-Filing Requirement in Employer Discrimination Defense

In a ruling earlier this month, the U.S. Supreme Court found that Title VII’s exhaustion of administrative remedies requirement is a mandatory claim-processing rule rather than jurisdictional, settling a long-standing disagreement among appellate courts.

The need for the clarification stems from a general rule that a federal discrimination claim should be dismissed unless a timely charge was filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) — or a state agency equivalent — prior to filing the Title VII lawsuit. The disagreement was rooted in an interpretation of whether the timely exhaustion of administrative remedies requirement was jurisdictional, thus could not be waived, or non-jurisdictional, which would result in waiver of the defense if not presented to the Court in a timely manner.

In the case under consideration, Fort Bend County v. Davis, the plaintiff filed a charge with the EEOC alleging sexual harassment and retaliation. While the charge was pending, Davis was fired for refusing to work on a Sunday due to a church commitment. Davis added religious discrimination to her claim without formally amending the original EEOC charge. Five years after the Title VII suit was filed, the employer moved to dismiss the lawsuit on the basis that federal courts had no jurisdiction since religious bias was not part of the EEOC charge.

The Fifth Circuit found that Title VII’s filing requirement was not jurisdictional and, therefore, had no bearing on whether the court had adjudicatory authority over related cases and associated parties. The Supreme Court unanimously affirmed that decision.

While the EEOC charge-filing rule still is a mandatory prerequisite to raising a Title VII claim, failure of employers to promptly assert that a plaintiff did not timely exhaust administrative remedies can waive the right to use that defense. The decision heightens the need for employers and their attorneys to scrutinize EEOC charges to ensure all claims asserted in the lawsuit were timely and adequately raised in the administrative proceeding.  It is crucial to raise any discrepancy in the initial answer to the claim or motion to dismiss.

The ruling will have most impact in cases similar to Fort Bend County v. Davis, where a plaintiff timely files the claim asserting bias in certain areas but fails to assert others until after the deadline to assert an administrative complaint has passed. In any discrimination case, the advice and guidance of your employment law attorney will be invaluable. As always, we are happy to help.

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