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Supreme Court Says Filing a Charge with the EEOC is Not a “Jurisdictional” Requirement for Federal Court Discrimination Actions

By: Nicholas Lanphear | 6/7/2019 | Category: Employment Law-Discrimination
As any seasoned human resources professional knows, employees begin their federal Title VII discrimination, harassment, or retaliation claims in the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”).  From there, the EEOC has the opportunity to investigate the charge of discrimination, retaliation, or harassment and potentially prosecute the case in federal court. If the EEOC decides not to bring the action, it will issue a “right to sue” letter that permits the employee to file a private lawsuit against his or her employer for violations of Title VII within 90 days from receipt of the letter.  If the employee fails to first file a charge with the EEOC, any competent employment law attorney’s first thought will be to file a motion to dismiss the employee’s federal lawsuit for failure to first bring their claims to the EEOC.  This week the Supreme Court of the United States addressed the legal framework surrounding the employee’s obligation to first file a charge with the EEOC and consequently eliminated a jurisdictional defense for employers.

In Fort Bend County v. Davis, an employee filed a charge with the EEOC alleging sexual harassment and retaliation for reporting the harassment.  During the EEOC’s investigation, the employer fired the employee for failing to show up to work on a Sunday.  The employee attempted to amend her charge for religious discrimination because she missed work that day to attend a church event.  The employee, however, did not amend her formal charge document but supplemented her “intake questionnaire” with the EEOC.

After the EEOC proceedings, the parties engaged in protracted litigation.  Following a series of appeals and after years of litigation, the employer, for the first time, raised the argument that the court lacked “jurisdiction” to hear the religious discrimination claim because the employee did not file the claim properly with the EEOC first.  This issue went all the way to the Supreme Court, which made a distinction between the mandatory pre-litigation requirement of filing a charge with the EEOC and the jurisdiction of federal courts.  Briefly stated, jurisdiction refers to the types of cases that a federal court can hear.  

In its opinion, the Supreme Court held that filing a charge with the EEOC is still required but the issue is not about the federal court’s jurisdiction since federal courts may decide cases involving federal legislation like Title VII.  The practical effect of this distinction is that the defense of failing to file a charge must be raised as soon as possible in litigation or else it is waived.  Jurisdiction arguments, however, can be raised at any time.

The lesson for employers is to evaluate cases early on.  Many times procedural arguments (e.g., failure to fail a charge with the EEOC) can resolve cases a lot quicker (and cheaper) than arguing the merits of the case.  If you have any questions, please contact an RBS Attorney for additional information.

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