A recent decision from the U.S. Supreme Court serves as an excellent reminder to pay attention to the details of a claim, beginning at the earliest point in a case. In Fort Bend Co v Davis, ___ U.S. ___ (2019), the Court held that Title VII’s charge‑filing requirement is not jurisdictional in nature.
For those of us who might be scratching our heads, the concept is quite simple once we’ve discarded with the legalese. As you probably know, Title VII is federal legislation that prohibits discrimination in the employment context on the basis of sex, race, color, religion, or national origin. Title VII doesn’t let a plaintiff just file suit with a court, however. Instead, a complainant must file a charge with the EEOC, which then investigates and evaluates the merit of the claim. If the EEOC doesn’t pursue the claim itself, the complainant must then obtain a right‑to‑sue letter to file suit in court.
In Davis, the complainant filed a charge with the EEOC, alleging sexual harassment and retaliation. After she filed the charge, her employer allegedly engaged in religion‑based discrimination. To reflect the added charge, she handwrote “religion” on her intake questionnaire with the EEOC, but she did not amend her formal charge document to include religious discrimination. After her charge was closed, she filed suit in federal court and pursued the action until, years later, only the religion claim remained. For the first time, the employer alleged that her religion claim should be dismissed because she never amended her formal charge document with the EEOC to include it. In other words, she did not meet the requirement that she file a charge with the EEOC to investigate her religion claim and give her a right‑to‑sue letter.
A unanimous Supreme Court disagreed. Justice Ginsburg wrote that the requirement is not “jurisdictional” in nature – meaning that, unlike a case where a court lacks the authority to rule on the case because of the type of subject involved or because the people involved are under the jurisdiction of a different court, the court was still able to reach the merits of this case because the case had carried on so long without objection from the defendant. The bottom line is that the defendant sat on its hands too long; if it had made its objection at the beginning of the case, the court would have likely told the plaintiff she needed to go back and obtain a right‑to‑sue letter from the EEOC with respect to her claim of religious discrimination.
Davis is a good reminder to closely review all aspects of a case at the earliest time possible. Importantly, many objections are considered waived if they are not raised immediately. The defendant in Davis learned a hard lesson from its error – make sure the same doesn’t happen to you.
The case may be accessed here.