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U.S. Supreme Court Finds EEOC Charge Not Jurisdictional Issue

Title VII of the Civil Rights Acts mandates that employees with claims of discrimination file with the EEOC (or comparable state agency) before proceeding to litigation. The Supreme Court has ruled that this requirement is not a precondition to “jurisdiction” by the court but rather a “claim-processing rule” that must be timely raised by a defendant to be relevant.

Lois Davis formerly worked for Fort Bend County; she claims that she was sexually harassed by her supervisor and then retaliated against following her complaint about the harassment. Davis filed a Charge of Discrimination with the EEOC. While that charge was pending, further acts occurred at Fort Bend, causing her to handwrite “religion” onto her intake questionnaire. No corresponding changes were made to her formal charge of discrimination. Several years into the litigation of her claims, Fort Bend asked to dismiss her religious discrimination claim based on Davis’ failure to include it in her Charge of Discrimination.

Questioning whether a court has subject-matter jurisdiction over a claim (i.e., the authority to rule on the matter before it) may occur at any time during proceedings. The Supreme Court has distinguished in prior holdings between “jurisdictional prescriptions and nonjurisdictional claim-processing rules, which ‘seek to promote the orderly progress of litigation by requiring that the parties take certain procedural steps at certain specified times.’”

Federal courts have jurisdiction over Title VII claims because a) they arise out of a federal statute and b) Title VII itself contains specific language giving federal courts jurisdiction. Title VII’s charge-filing requirement is outlined in separate provisions of the statute and does not reference the court’s authority. Rather those provisions address the complaining party’s procedural obligations. In arguing that it is a jurisdictional requirement, Fort Bend pointed to instances where administrative agencies adjudicate first and then there is judicial review. The Supreme Court did not find any of the cases cited by Fort Bend to address the issue of Title VII, where there are preconditions to filing a lawsuit. The EEOC does not adjudicate claims that are then appealed to the federal courts. The Court ultimately found that “a rule may be mandatory without being jurisdictional, and Title VII’s charge filing requirement fits that bill.”