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Administrative Prerequisites and Employment Suits

Published:  June 5, 2019

On June 3rd, 2019, the Supreme Court issued an opinion which changed how many look at the administrative prerequisites for filing employment discrimination suits under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. Under Title VII, as well as most of its state-based analogous statutes such as MGL 151B, aggrieved parties are required to file an administrative charge at the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, or corresponding state agency, before they can file a civil suit. However, there has been some debate about whether this prerequisite was a jurisdictional requirement or merely a claims processing requirement. This question is important because claims processing requirements can be waived, whereas jurisdictional requirements cannot be waived. Federal Circuits were divided on this issue, with eight Circuits ruling that the prerequisite was not jurisdictional and three Circuits ruling that it was.

The recent case of Fort Bend County v. Davis presented exactly this issue. In this case, a Texas woman, Davis, brought a charge of discrimination on the basis of sexual harassment to the EEOC. While her charge was pending, there was incident wherein she alleged that she was denied a requested religious accommodation. In an attempt to supplement her charge, she checked boxes for ‘reasonable accommodation’ and hand wrote ‘religion’ on an intake questionnaire. She did not, however, change the formal charge document. After several months, Davis received a ‘right to sue’ letter, and thereafter brought a lawsuit alleging religious discrimination, among other things. Following a few years of litigation, Fort Bend County filed a motion to dismiss the religious discrimination complaint on the grounds that the court lacked jurisdiction because Davis had not properly amended her EEOC charge to include religious discrimination. This District Court granted Fort Bend County’s motion and held that the prerequisite was a jurisdictional requirement, which means that it cannot be waved. On Appeal, the Circuit Court reversed the District Court’s decision. The Circuit Court found that the prerequisite was not jurisdictional. Instead, the Circuit Court found that the prerequisite was a claim processing rule, which was forfeited by Fort Bend County because it was not raised in a timely manner.

The case was appealed to the Supreme Court and yesterday, the Supreme Court released its ruling. Writing on behalf of a unanimous court, Justice Ginsburg found that the prerequisite was not jurisdictional. Instead, the Court found that the prerequisite is a party’s procedural obligation and mandatory charge processing rule. Unlike the defense of a lack of subject matter jurisdiction, Defendants must raise the objection, or else waive the defense.

What does this change for employers? Not too much. Under this standard, a plaintiff could file a discrimination suit in federal court without first filing a charge with the EEOC. However, if a plaintiff did so, the defendant can raise the failure to satisfy the prerequisite to get the case dismissed. As Justice Ginsburg wrote, “…and recognizing that the charge-filing requirement is non-jurisdictional and gives plaintiff’s scant incentive to skirt the instruction. Defendants, after all, have good reason promptly to raise an objection that may rid them of the lawsuit filed against them. A title VII complainant would be foolhardy consciously to take the risk that the employer would forgo a potentially dispositive defense.” In other words, a plaintiff does not really gain anything from skipping over the administrative filing requirement, even if they may be able to get away with it. To the contrary, in doing so, the plaintiff runs a major risk that their entire complaint will be dismissed merely because they skipped the prerequisite charge filing requirement.

If you have any questions about discrimination suits filed on your business, please do not hesitate to contact the attorneys at Royal, P.C.

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