Fort Bend County v. Davis (Decision June 3, 2019)
In Fort Bend County, Texas v. Davis, the Supreme Court clarified in a unanimous opinion that Title VII’s charge-filing requirement is not jurisdictional.
Background: Title VII charge-filing
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 created the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and set out requirements for potential plaintiffs in employment disputes (Title VII). Before suing in federal court, an employee must file a “charge” of discrimination with the EEOC or a state fair employment practices agency (FEPA) first. This applies to employees or applicants for employment in the private sector or at state agencies. The charge filing process generally starts with an intake questionnaire and possibly a meeting with an intake counselor. The employee then files a charge of discrimination, which the EEOC investigates and may attempt to resolve with the employer. After a minimum of 180 days, the EEOC will decide whether it believes there is probable cause that the employer discriminated against the employee. If the EEOC decides there is probable cause, it will either litigate the case on behalf of the employee or it will attempt to settle it. If the EEOC is not able to resolve the issue or chooses not to litigate, or if the EEOC decides it cannot identify probable cause of discrimination, the EEOC will issue a Right to Sue letter and the employee then has 90 days to file a complaint in court, initiating a lawsuit.
Lois Davis was an employee of Fort Bend County in Texas. In 2010, she filed a complaint of sexual harassment with the County’s human resources department, alleging the director of her department was harassing her. The director resigned after the human resources department investigated Ms. Davis’ allegations. Following the director’s resignation, Ms. Davis alleges her supervisor began retaliating against her because of the harassment complaint.
Based on the harassment and retaliation, Ms. Davis completed an intake questionnaire with the Texas Workforce Commission, the state FEPA, in February 2011 and filed a charge of discrimination the following month. While her charge was pending, the County directed Ms. Davis to report to work on a Sunday. Ms. Davis informed her supervisor that she had a church commitment that day and offered to find a replacement. Ms. Davis’ supervisor ordered her to report for work, and informed her that if she did not, the County would terminate her employment. Ms. Davis attended church that Sunday and the County subsequently terminated her employment.
Ms. Davis attempted to amend her charge to include the termination of her employment by writing “religion” on the intake questionnaire and checking the boxes for “discharge” and “reasonable accommodation” on the form. She did not, however, make any changes to the charge form. Ms. Davis received a Right to Sue letter a few months later and filed a complaint in federal court in January 2012. In her complaint, Ms. Davis alleged that Fort Bend discriminated against her because of her religion and in retaliation for reporting sexual harassment.
In September 2013, the district court granted Fort Bend’s motion for summary judgment, dismissing the case in its entirety. On appeal the following year, the Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit upheld the grant of summary judgment on Ms. Davis’ retaliation claim but reversed on her religious discrimination claim. After the Supreme Court denied the County’s petition for certiorari, the case returned to the district court. Fort Bend then, for the first time, moved to dismiss Ms. Davis’ religious discrimination claims with an argument that the district court lacked jurisdiction. The County claimed that because Ms. Davis did not include her religion claims in her charge, the court could not consider them. The district court agreed and dismissed the religious discrimination claim in August 2016. The appeals court (Fifth Circuit) stood by Ms. Davis, resurrecting the claim, and the Supreme Court agreed to review the issue to address a split among the circuit courts. Is Title VII’s charge-filing requirement “jurisdictional”?
In order to rule on the merits of a case, a court must have jurisdiction—the subject of the dispute and the parties involved must fall within the court’s authority to hear cases. Congress has set of various jurisdictional requirements for federal courts, such as the amount of money at issue in the case and the geographic locations of the parties. If the case or the parties do not meet these requirements, a federal court must dismiss a case for lack of jurisdiction. Congress has created other, nonjurisdictional, rules that set out the steps parties must take at various times before and during litigation. These rules are mandatory and courts must enforce them when parties raise them properly. However, a party forfeits its right to raise these mandatory but not jurisdictional rules if it waits too long to do so.
In this case, if the Title VII charge-filing rules are jurisdictional, the court would have to dismiss the religious discrimination claim. But if the rule is merely “mandatory,” the claim could go on because Fort Bend County didn’t object on time.
Supreme Court ruling
In examining the Title VII charge filing rules, the Court found that they speak to procedural obligations. That is, the rules describe what a plaintiff must do before filing a lawsuit (i.e.how to litigate a case). Litigation procedural rules differ from jurisdictional rules that bar courts from hearing certain cases. Because Fort Bend waited years to raise the issue of what Ms. Davis included in her charge, the Supreme Court affirmed the Fifth Circuit’s decision that the County waived its right to enforce the Title VII charge-filing rule against Ms. Davis.
Meghan Drost is a Senior Associate with Wilkenfeld, Herendeen & Atkinson in Washington, DC, focusing on employment discrimination litigation. She also serves as an instructor with the Federal Employment Law Training Group, educating federal employees on substantive and procedural issues in federal employment.