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Court clarifies exhaustion requirement for discrimination claims

by | Jun 26, 2019 | Discrimination


On June 3, the U.S. Supreme Court released an opinion about procedural requirements for federal discrimination lawsuits that has important repercussions for employers and employees alike. Specifically, the court held that even though an employee is required to file a discrimination charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) before filing a lawsuit, an employee who fails to do so may still be able to sue if the employer fails to object.

In other words, while filing a charge with the EEOC is required, it is not “jurisdictional” and therefore can be waived.

EEOC filing mandate

In Fort Bend County, Texas v. Davis, Lois Davis accused the director of her department of sexual harassment, and alleged that her employer then retaliated against her for reporting the harassment by “curtailing her work responsibilities.” Davis filed charges of sexual harassment and retaliation with the EEOC – the federal government agency tasked with enforcing federal anti-discrimination laws – against her employer.

The EEOC is charged with investigating these types of claims and may attempt to facilitate a settlement between the parties. The EEOC does not have the power to decide a claim, but it can file a federal lawsuit on an employee’s behalf.

After another incident at work, Davis wrote on an EEOC intake form that her employer had discriminated against her based on her religion, but she did not formally amend her original charge to include the religious discrimination allegations.

The agency gave Davis a right-to-sue letter based on her original charge, which gave Davis 90 days to bring a lawsuit against her employer in federal court.

Title VII discrimination lawsuit

Davis filed the lawsuit, and after several years of litigation only the claim of religious discrimination remained before the court. Since Davis never filed allegations of religious discrimination with the EEOC, the employer asked the court to dismiss the claim, arguing that Davis had not exhausted her administrative remedies before filing those claims in court. Specifically, the employer argued that by failing to first submit her claims of religious discrimination to the EEOC, the court did not have jurisdiction to hear those claims under Title VII.

In a unanimous opinion, the Supreme Court held that while Title VII does require an employee to file a claim the EEOC before filing a lawsuit, failure to do so is not jurisdictional and therefore can be waived. When a court lacks jurisdiction, it means that the court has no legal authority to decide a controversy on a particular subject between the particular parties and must dismiss the claims. However, non-jurisdictional issues may be waived, either expressly by the consent of the parties or by a party’s acts or omissions.

In Davis, the court determined that Title VII’s charge-filing requirement is “nonjurisdictional” and therefore can be waived. As a result, when an employee fails to file a charge of discrimination with the EEOC, the defending employer can promptly object and the court can dismiss the claims. However, if the employer fails to “properly” and “promptly” raise the issue before the court, the court may waive the charge-filing requirement and allow the case to proceed in court.

Congress did not make the claim-filing requirement jurisdictional under Title VII, and courts have found similar requirements in other statutes to be nonjurisdictional.

The court did not specify a particular deadline for objecting, so employers should carefully examine any federal discrimination lawsuits filed against them to determine if the employee first filed all claims with the EEOC. Likewise, employees should be sure to include every Title VII claim in their EEOC filings to avoid potential dismissal in court.

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