The Supreme Court held today in a unanimous opinion that the charge-filing requirement in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 is not jurisdictional. Fort Bend County, Texas v. Davis, No. 18-525 (June 3, 2019).
Title VII prohibits employment discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin, as well as retaliation against those who engage in protected activity. 42 U.S.C. § 2000e–2(a)(1); § 2000e–3(a). Title VII requires that, prior to filing a Title VII claim in court, a person must file a charge of discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). §§ 2000e–5(e)(1), (f)(1). The EEOC then sends a notice of charge to the employer and investigates the charging party’s allegations. Upon conclusion of its investigation, the EEOC may pursue litigation on the charging party’s behalf (if there is a “reasonable cause” finding), determine that there is no reasonable cause, or decline to make a finding one way or the other. The EEOC then sends a notice of right to sue to the charging party, which triggers the person’s ability to file suit in court.
In Fort Bend County, the Supreme Court addressed a circuit split as to whether the charge-filing requirement is jurisdictional — meaning that it may be raised at any stage of litigation — or is procedural — meaning that the issue must be timely raised or else it is waived.
In a unanimous opinion authored by Justice Ginsburg, the Court held that “Title VII’s charge-filing instruction is not jurisdictional, a term generally reserved to describe the classes of cases a court may entertain (subject-matter jurisdiction) or the persons over whom a court may exercise adjudicatory authority (personal jurisdiction).” Rather, Title VII’s charge-filing requirement is a “claim-processing rule that must be timely raised to come into play.”
Applying this holding to the case at hand, the Court affirmed the Fifth Circuit’s ruling that the employer had forfeited its argument that the employee never filed an EEOC charge by failing to argue the issue until after several years of litigation and “an entire round of appeals all the way to the Supreme Court” had already passed.
The Court’s ruling does not mean that would-be plaintiffs are free to disregard Title VII’s charge-filing requirements. Instead, as Justice Ginsburg stated, “[a] claim-processing rule may be ‘mandatory’ in the sense that a court must enforce the rule if a party ‘properly raise[s]’ it. . . . But an objection based on a mandatory claim-processing rule may be forfeited ‘if the party asserting the rule waits too long to raise the point.” (Citations omitted).