Supreme Court Holds Title VII’s Charge-Filing Requirement is Mandatory But Waivable if Not Timely Raised by Employer
By Marty Lemert
The United States Supreme Court recently issued a decision making it easier for employees to bring Title VII claims directly in court without having to exhaust their charge filing obligations with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). In Fort Bend County, Texas v. Davis, the employee filed an EEOC charge against her former employer, Fort Bend County. Her charge alleged sexual harassment and retaliation for reporting the harassment. The employee was later fired during the pendency of that charge when she failed to show up to work on a Sunday having gone to a church event instead. The employee tried to supplement her EEOC charge by noting “religion” on her intake questionnaire with the EEOC, but never amended her actual charge.
After receiving her Right to Sue letter from the EEOC, the employee filed a lawsuit in federal district court, alleging, in part, discrimination on the basis of religion. After years of litigation over other claims, Fort Bend County asserted for the first time that the district court lacked jurisdiction to adjudicate the religious discrimination claim because the EEOC charge did not specify any religion-based claim.
The federal district court agreed and dismissed on jurisdictional grounds. The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed, finding that the charge filing requirement is a prerequisite to suit, but not jurisdictional in nature. In a unanimous decision, the Supreme Court agreed with the Fifth Circuit.
The Supreme Court found that the charge filing requirement in Title VII is a claim processing rule that does require parties to file charges prior to litigation, but it is not a jurisdictional bar to suit. Thus, if an employer fails to promptly raise the issue of deficiencies in the charge filing process, it waives them.
For employers who are facing EEOC charges and subsequent litigation over those charges, it is critical to review the adequacy of the charge, including the types of discrimination alleged, to assess whether or not there are any challenges to the adequacy of the charge filing and to assert those as defenses to the litigation at the initial pleading stage.
In short, it is very important for employers who are sued under Title VII, or similar statutes that require administrative charge filing as a prerequisite to suit, to consult with experienced legal counsel and assess early on whether to raise a defense or seek dismissal due to deficiencies in the charge filing requirement.