Supreme Court Rules a Plaintiff’s Failure to File EEOC Charge Is Not Fatal to Title VII Lawsuit Unless Timely Raised by a Defendant

It’s a given that employers are prohibited from discriminating against employees on the basis of sex, race, color, national origin and religion – this according to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which generally applies to employers with 15 or more employees, including federal, state and local governments. It’s also been a given that a court lacked jurisdiction over a court action for discrimination under Title VII until and unless an employee first filed a charge of discrimination on the underlying claim with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). Not anymore. By way of its recent ruling in Fort Bend County v. Davis, the U.S. Supreme Court has determined that this now-familiar administrative filing precondition is a “procedural obligation” and not a jurisdictional prerequisite to a lawsuit.

The “jurisdictional” vs. “procedural” distinction is important because if the failure to satisfy the charge-filing requirement itself does not divest a federal court of its jurisdiction over a Title VII lawsuit, an employer-defendant to a lawsuit must now affirmatively raise the plaintiff-employee’s failure to file a charge before a court is required to enforce the requirement. And critically, although the Court noted the plaintiff-employee’s charge-filing requirement is mandatory if properly raised, the defendant-employer may forfeit such requirement it “waits too long to raise the point.”

Translation: federal courts do not lack jurisdiction over discrimination claims simply because plaintiffs bypass the EEOC. Therefore, employers and their counsel must carefully review Title VII lawsuits to ensure they do not contain allegations and claims not previously specifically identified in an EEOC charge. Failure to timely object (e.g., in a responsive pleading) to such allegations and claims not raised to the EEOC may result in a waiver of the defense that a plaintiff has failed to exhaust administrative filing requirements.

Have questions about the EEOC, Title VII or anything in between? The labor and employment attorneys at Michelman & Robinson, LLP are here with answers.

This blog post is not offered, and should not be relied on, as legal advice. You should consult an attorney for guidance in specific situations.