U.S. Supreme Court Concludes That County Forfeited Its Late Objection That An EEOC Complaint Failed To Reference A Protected Status In A Title VII Action

Category: Fire Watch
Date: Jun 24, 2019 04:36 PM

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (“Title VII”) prohibits discrimination in employment based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. Title VII requires an employee to file a charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) or a state’s fair employment agency before commencing a Title VII action in court. Once the EEOC receives a complaint, it notifies the employer and investigates the allegations. The EEOC may then resolve the complaint through informal conciliation or may sue the employer. If the EEOC chooses not to sue, it issues a right-to-sue notice, which allows the employee to initiate a lawsuit. An employee must have this right-to-sue notice before initiating a lawsuit.

Lois Davis filed an EEOC complaint against her employer, Fort Bend County.  She alleged sexual harassment and retaliation for reporting harassment. While the EEOC complaint was still pending, the County fired Davis because she went to church on a Sunday instead of coming to work as requested.  Davis attempted to amend her EEOC complaint by handwriting “religion” on an EEOC intake form; however, she never amended the formal charge document. Upon receiving her right-to-sue notice, Davis sued the County in federal court for religious discrimination and retaliation for reporting sexual harassment.

After years of litigation, the County alleged for the first time that the court did not have jurisdiction to decide Davis’ religious discrimination claim because that protected status was not included in her formal EEOC charge. The trial court agreed and dismissed the suit. On appeal, the Fifth Circuit reversed and held that an EEOC complaint was not a jurisdictional requirement for a Title VII suit, and therefore, the County forfeited its defense because it waited years to raise the objection. The U.S. Supreme Court then agreed to hear the case.

The U.S. Supreme Court had to decide whether an EEOC complaint is a jurisdictional or procedural requirement for bringing a Title VII action. When a jurisdictional requirement is not met, a court has no authority whatsoever to decide a certain type of case.   A procedural requirement, by contrast, is a claim-processing rule that is a precondition to relief that may be waived if there is no timely objection. The Court noted that a key distinction between the two is that jurisdictional requirements may be raised at any stage of the proceedings, but procedural requirements are only mandatory if the opposing party timely objects.

The Supreme Court concluded that Title VII’s complaint-filing requirements are not jurisdictional because those laws “do not speak to a court’s authority.” Instead, those complaint-filing requirements speak to “a party’s procedural obligations.” Therefore, the Court found that while filing a complaint with the EEOC or other State agency is still mandatory, the County forfeited its right to object to Davis’ failure to mention religious discrimination in her EEOC complaint because the County did not raise the objection until many years into the litigation.

Fort Bend County v. Davis, 587 U.S. ____, 135 S.Ct. 2804 (2019).

NOTE:

This case demonstrates the importance of considering the adequacy of an employee’s administrative EEOC or California Department of Fair Employment and Housing discrimination complaint early in the litigation process.  LCW trial attorneys regularly help public agencies defend against themselves against all types of discrimination lawsuits.

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