Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 provides a claim for discrimination in employment on the basis of race, color, national origin, sex, religion, and retaliation, but it requires that a plaintiff file a charge of discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and obtain permission from the EEOC before filing a lawsuit.
In Fort Bend Cnty., Tex. v. Davis, Ms. Davis filed her EEOC charge alleging sexual harassment and retaliation and obtained permission to file a lawsuit, but when she filed her lawsuit for retaliation she also included a claim for religious discrimination that had not been part of her EEOC charge. Fort Bend County did not object to inclusion of the religious discrimination claim until years into the litigation and after the case had been appealed once and returned to the trial court.
Fort Bend County sought to characterize Ms. Davis’s failure to file a charge of religious discrimination as a jurisdictional defect. Jurisdictional defects may be raised at any time, while the failure to satisfy an administrative requirement is subject to a defense that must be raised timely. Fort Bend County therefore contended its objection to Ms. Davis’s religious discrimination claim was timely. The federal trial court in Houston agreed and dismissed Ms. Davis’s lawsuit.
However, on June 4, 2019, in a unanimous 9-0 decision authored by Justice Ginsburg, the Supreme Court found the charge-filing requirement was not jurisdictional but instead was a mandatory claim-processing rule that was subject to forfeiture. Fort Bend County had argued congressional purposes included in Title VII, such as encouraging conciliation and allowing the EEOC the initial opportunity to file a lawsuit, indicated the charge-filing requirement was jurisdictional. The Supreme Court rejected that argument and noted its decision would not encourage plaintiffs to avoid filing charges of discrimination before suit and that defendants had a good reason to promptly object in litigation to a plaintiff’s failure to satisfy the charge-filing requirement.
The Supreme Court therefore sent the case back to the trial court for further proceedings with regard to the religious discrimination claim that was never included in the EEOC charge.
The Supreme Court’s decision highlights the importance for employers of involving competent employment law counsel at the earliest possible stage of a Title VII claim. Defenses to Title VII claims are not intuitive and often seemingly technical. However, as this case shows, knowing these defenses and recognizing them promptly can be the difference between seeing a case dismissed early or being subjected to five years of litigation, two trips to the Court of Appeals, and a trip to the Supreme Court.
G. Scott Fiddler is a commercial litigator and labor & employment attorney with over 25 years of experience representing clients in wage & hour disputes, wrongful termination, discrimination, and non-compete agreement matters, as well as general labor & employment law. Scott is Board Certified in both Labor and Employment Law and Civil Trial Law, placing him among approximately 25 attorneys in Texas board certified in both specialties. In 2019, he served on the Texas Board of Legal Specialization Labor & Employment Law Exam Commission and the Texas Association of Civil Trial and Appellate Specialists Board of Directors.
The opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Firm, its clients, or any of its or their respective affiliates. This article is for informational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice.