In a unanimous decision, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that federal courts can hear discrimination claims under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act even if employees do not bring them to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission or concurrent state or local agencies first.
The Court held that Title VII’s requirement that employees file a charge with the EEOC before bringing suit in court is a nonjurisdictional claim-processing rule. In other words, it is mandatory that an employee file a charge before being heard in court, but this rule is only enforced if a party properly raises it to the court. An objection to an employee’s failure to file a charge with the EEOC is subject to waiver if not raised early enough in litigation.
In the instant case, Fort Bend County v. Davis, the employer waited years into litigation to assert for the first time that the District Court lacked jurisdiction to hear Davis’ religious discrimination claim because she had not stated such a claim in her EEOC charge. The Court held that Fort Bend had waited too long to raise the issue, and thus waived the objection. Furthermore, Davis’ failure to allege religious discrimination in her charge did not prevent the court from hearing those claims.
While this is an important ruling for employers and employees alike, it is unlikely that this decision will have far-reaching effects. As the Court pointed out, its decision to recognize that the charge-filing requirement is nonjurisdictional gives employees scant incentive to skirt the instruction. Employers have good reason to promptly raise an objection that may rid them of the lawsuit filed against them, and an employee would be foolhardy to consciously take the risk that the employer would forgo a potentially dispositive defense.
The takeaway from this ruling? Employees should still file a charge with the EEOC or comparable state or local agency before bringing suit. Where an employee has failed to file a charge or has failed to allege all claims in the charge, an employer must raise an objection promptly, or risk waiving the objection and allowing the suit to go forward.