U.S. Supreme Court: Filing a Charge with the EEOC is Not a Jurisdictional Requirement to Sue

On June 3, 2019, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously held in Fort Bend Cty., Texas v. Davis (U.S. 2019), that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964’s requirement that employees file a “charge” with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission before commencing litigation is not jurisdictional. Rather, the charge-filing requirement is a mandatory claim-processing rule that may be waived if the employer does not timely object.

Davis involved an employee who filed a charge for sexual harassment and retaliation against her employer with the Texas Workforce Commission and the EEOC. While the charge was pending, the employee was fired for attending a church event instead of showing up for work on a Sunday. The employee attempted to supplement her charge by handwriting “religion” on her intake questionnaire, but failed to amend her formal charge document. As a result, the EEOC never investigated her religious discrimination allegations. Upon receiving a right-to-sue notice, the employee filed a federal lawsuit alleging claims of sexual harassment, retaliation, and religious discrimination.

Several years into the litigation, only the religious discrimination claim remained. The employer then asserted for the first time that the trial court lacked jurisdiction to adjudicate the matter because the employee’s EEOC charge did not state a religion-based discrimination claim. The trial court agreed and dismissed the suit. The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed holding that Title VII’s charge-filing requirement was not a jurisdictional requirement that could be raised at any stage of the proceeding. Rather, the court determined that this requirement was a prudential prerequisite to suit, forfeited by the employer because it had waited too long to raise the objection.

The Supreme Court affirmed holding that Title VII’s administrative exhaustion requirement is merely a mandatory claim-processing rule and not a jurisdictional bar that may be raised at any time in the case. Because the employer failed to timely raise the employee’s noncompliance with the administrative exhaustion requirement, it waived its ability to rely on this defense.

The takeaway from Davis is that employers must be prudent in identifying an employee’s failure to exhaust his or her administrative remedies at the outset of any Title VII litigation to avoid forfeiting the ability to seek dismissal on this basis.