United States: Use It Or Lose It: Supreme Court Rules That Failure To Exhaust Defense Must Be Prompt

Last Updated: June 25 2019
Article by Erin Dougherty Foley

Seyfarth Synopsis: New decision from the Supreme Court ruled that Title VII's requirement that plaintiffs file with the EEOC or other state agencies is a non-jurisdictional claim-processing rule, which means it can be forfeited if a defendant waits too long to raise the objection.

On June 3, 2019, the U.S. Supreme Court resolved an important question for job-bias claims: is Title VII's mandatory charge-filing a jurisdictional prescription or a claim-processing rule that can be forfeited? Don't worry, the ruling did not nullify the Title VII requirement that claimants file charges with EEOC or other state agencies before going to court. However, this case clarifies that if an employer waits too long to say that the claimant did not overcome the charge-filing barrier, the employer can lose the defense. See Fort Bend County, Texas v. Davis, U.S., No. 18-525 (June 3, 2019).

Facts of Fort Bend County

Lois Davis worked in information technology for Fort Bend County. In 2010, she claimed that her department director sexually harassed her. Davis also alleged that her supervisor retaliated against her for reporting sexual harassment by limiting her work responsibilities. While her EEOC charge was pending, Davis was told to come to work on an upcoming Sunday. Davis told her supervisor that she could not make it because of a church requirement, and she did not show. Fort Bend terminated Davis for failure to come in.

In an attempt to add to her charge, Davis handwrote "religion" on her intake questionnaire and checked the "discharge" and "reasonable accommodation" boxes on the form. However, she made no change in the formal charge document. She filed suit alleging both religious discrimination and retaliation for having made a complaint of sexual harassment. The case proceeded through litigation, including a trip up and back to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals. The Fifth Circuit dismissed the retaliation claim, but remanded the religious discrimination claim. Back in the district court, Fort Bend moved to dismiss the religious discrimination claim because — according to them — Davis had not exhausted her administrative remedies as to that claim. The district court held that she had not satisfied her charge-filing requirement, which was "jurisdictional," making it nonforfeitable.

The Fifth Circuit, however, reversed, holding that the charge-filing requirement is not jurisdictional, but rather is a prudential perquisite to suit, forfeited in Davis' case because Fort Bend waited "years into the litigation," and did not raise this concern until after "an entire round of appeals all the way to the Supreme Court." The Supreme Court affirmed.

Why Does This Matter?

The Supreme Court held that a charge-filing requirement speaks only to a party's procedural obligations. If the Court had ruled that it was jurisdictional requirement, the case would have been dismissed with no exceptions. However, since it is a non-jurisdictional claim-processing rule, a defendant must promptly raise the objection. Basically, if an employer waits too long to raise an issue about the adequacy of a charge, it forfeits the opportunity to rely on the issue later down the road. Indeed, the Supreme Court noted: "Title VII's charge-filing requirement is a processing rule, albeit a mandatory one, not a jurisdictional prescription ....."

What Should Employers Look Out For?

Employers and their attorneys should review EEOC and other state equivalent charges carefully to make sure that any claims asserted in a federal court are identical to claims at the administrative level. Ask these questions:

  • Did the accuser file a charge with the EEOC or the state equivalent?
  • If so, did the employee assert the same claims in the lawsuit?
  • If not, an employer should move to dismiss or object to the complaint because the employee failed to exhaust administrative remedies.

Do not wait long to do this. The Court stressed that any objection can be waived if the employer waits too long to raise the point. Employers still have a valid defense, they just can't forget to assert it!

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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