On June 3, 2019, the United States Supreme Court ruled that the requirement under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (“Title VII”) that a complainant must first file a charge of discrimination with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) as a precondition to the commencement of a Title VII lawsuit in court is not jurisdictional. Ford Bend County, Texas v. Davis, 587 U.S. ___ (2019). Title VII proscribes employment discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. Title VII also prohibits retaliation against persons who assert rights under the statute. As a precondition to filing a Title VII employment discrimination lawsuit in court, a complainant must first file a charge of discrimination with the EEOC. The Supreme Court considered whether Title VII’s charge-filing precondition is a jurisdictional requirement that may be raised by the defense at any stage of a lawsuit, or a procedural prescription mandatory if timely raised, but subject to waiver if not timely raised. In an opinion authored by Justice Ginsburg, the Supreme Court held that the charge-filing precondition is not jurisdictional. Consequently, a plaintiff’s failure to file a charge of discrimination before filing a Title VII lawsuit must be timely raised as an objection or a defense early in the lawsuit. Otherwise, the objection or defense may be forfeited.
This case arose from an underlying charge of sexual harassment and retaliation. The plaintiff filed a Title VII lawsuit in federal court alleging discrimination on account of religion and retaliation for reporting sexual harassment. Years into the litigation, the defendant raised for the first time the position that the court lacked jurisdiction over the plaintiff’s Title VII religion-based discrimination claim because she had not alleged a religion-based discrimination claim in her EEOC charge. Unlike most arguments, challenges to subject-matter jurisdiction may be raised by a party at any point in the litigation. The Supreme Court drew a distinction between jurisdictional prescriptions and non-jurisdictional claim-processing rules, which promote the orderly progress of litigation by requiring certain procedural steps at certain times. Justice Ginsburg explained that a claim-processing rule may be mandatory in the sense that a court must enforce the rule if a party properly raises it (as a defense or an objection). However, an objection based on a mandatory claim-processing rule may be forfeited if the party asserting the rule waits too long to raise it. The court reasoned that federal courts exercise jurisdiction over Title VII lawsuits under other statutory provisions (federal-question jurisdiction and Title VII’s own jurisdictional provision). Title VII’s charge-filing requirement, which does not refer in any way to jurisdiction, is separate from these jurisdiction provisions. The charge-filing requirement establishes procedural obligations. “Title VII’s charge-filing requirement is a processing rule, albeit a mandatory one, not a jurisdictional prescription delineating the adjudicatory authority of courts….[A] rule may be mandatory without being jurisdictional, and Title VII’s charge-filing requirement fits that bill.”