Some cases look a lot more important at first glance than what they turn out to be. Case in point, today’s decision in Fort Bend County, Texas v. Davis, Case No. 18-525 (U.S. Sup. Ct. June 3, 2019). The Court’s holding was that Title VII’s charge-filing requirement is not jurisdictional. In the end, however, the holding largely means that the requirement is still a defense, but it is one that must be asserted and pursued by the defendant.
The facts of the case were pretty straightforward. Lois Davis was an IT worker for Fort Bend County who complained of sexual harassment by her supervisor. After his resignation, she accused his successor of retaliating against her and filed a charge of discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) complaining of sexual harassment and retaliation. Some time afterwards, she was scheduled to work on a Sunday. After the new supervisor refused her offer to trade shifts with a co-worker so she could attend church services, she was discharged. Davis then wrote “religion” by hand on an EEOC charge intake form, but she never formally amended her charge. After the EEOC issued its notice of right to sue, she filed suit under Title VII, alleging both retaliation and religious discrimination.
It is not uncommon for a court to find for an employee on a retaliation claim despite concluding that the underlying discrimination allegation is without merit, but here the opposite happened. While the district court granted summary judgment on both claims, the Fifth Circuit reversed on the religious accommodation claim and remanded the case. There, the district court dismissed the religious discrimination Title VII claim on the newly raised defense that it had never been properly raised in the charge.
So, the issue that reached the Supreme Court was whether the charge-filing requirement was jurisdictional (meaning it could not be waived) or simply procedural (meaning that it could still result in the dismissal of a case but could be waived). The Supreme Court concluded that while Congress had drafted the charge process to promote conciliation, the requirement was not jurisdictional. Thus, the defendant could waive it and, by not raising it until remand, had waived it.
The Fort Bend case is really a lesson in reading the charge before crafting an answer to the complaint in a Title VII case. While the case was not a class action, limitations of the charge are a defense to subsequent class action litigation, especially where the charge does not indicate that it is being filed on behalf of a class. In any case in which the scope of the action exceeds the allegations of the charge, at the earliest available stage, the defendant should consider the appropriate motion practice to narrow the case going forward.
The bottom line: The charge-filing requirement under Title VII is not strictly jurisdictional, but if properly presented it may still result in the dismissal or trimming of individual or class claims.