Supreme Court Rules Title VII’s Requirement to File a Charge With the EEOC Is Not Jurisdictional

By: Hera S. Arsen, Ph.D.

June 04, 2019

On June 3, 2019, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that the precondition in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 requiring employees to file a charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) before commencing an action in court is not jurisdictional. Rather, the charge-filing requirement is a “nonjurisdictional claim-processing rule,” Justice Ginsburg wrote in a unanimous opinion. “[A] rule may be mandatory without being jurisdictional, and Title VII’s charge-filing requirement fits that bill,” the Court ruled. Fort Bend County, Texas v. Davis, No. 18-525.

Background

In 2010, Lois Davis, an employee of Fort Bend County, Texas, claimed that she was the victim of sexual harassment and retaliation. After she filed a charge against Fort Bend with the Texas Workforce Commission, which relayed the charge to the EEOC, Fort Bend fired her for attending a church event instead of reporting to work. Davis subsequently handwrote “religion” and checked the “discharge” and “reasonable accommodation” boxes on her intake questionnaire but did not alter the formal charge document.

After receiving a right to sue letter, Davis filed suit against Fort Bend claiming discrimination and retaliation. The district court ruled in favor of Fort Bend on its motion for summary judgment. On appeal, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the lower court’s ruling as to Davis’s retaliation claim but reversed its ruling on her religious discrimination claim. When the case returned to the district court, Fort Bend argued that the district court lacked jurisdiction to adjudicate the discrimination claim because Davis had not stated that claim in her EEOC charge. The district court agreed and held that Davis had not satisfied the charge-filing requirement and that the requirement qualified as jurisdictional.

The Fifth Circuit reversed, ruling that Title VII’s charge-filing requirement is not jurisdictional and instead is a prerequisite to suit. The Supreme Court agreed to resolve a conflict among the courts of appeals by deciding the following question:

Is Title VII’s charge-filing precondition to suit a “jurisdictional” requirement that can be raised at any stage of a proceeding; or is it a procedural prescription mandatory if timely raised, but subject to forfeiture if tardily asserted?

Legal Analysis

Stressing “the distinction between jurisdictional prescriptions and nonjurisdictional claim-processing rules,” the Court ruled that Title VII’s charge-filing requirement falls under the latter category. According to Justice Ginsburg, “Title VII’s charge-filing requirement is not of jurisdictional cast” and is “not a jurisdictional prescription delineating the adjudicatory authority of courts.” “Instead, Title VII’s charge-filing provisions ‘speak to . . . a party’s procedural obligations.’” Nonjurisdictional claim-processing rules, the Court found, “’seek to promote the orderly progress of litigation by requiring that the parties take certain procedural steps at certain specified times.’”

Despite the fact that it does not delineate judicial authority, the Court noted that the charge-filing requirement is mandatory “in the sense that a court must enforce the rule if a party ‘properly raise[s]’ it.” “But an objection based on a mandatory claim-processing rule may be forfeited ‘if the party asserting the rule waits too long to raise the point,’” which the Fifth Circuit had ruled Fort Bend had done in this case by waiting too long to raise the issue.