On June 3, 2019, the Supreme Court of the United States decided Fort Bend County, Texas v. Davis, No. 18-525, holding that the charge-filing precondition to suit of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 is not a “jurisdictional” requirement, but rather a mandatory claim-processing rule that is subject to forfeiture if not timely raised. Title VII requires individuals who want to file a suit for discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin to first file a “charge” with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission or with the state-agency equivalent within 180 days after the alleged unlawful employment practice occurs.
Lois Davis worked in information technology for Fort Bend County, Texas. In 2010, she told Fort Bend’s human resources department that the director of IT had sexually harassed her. The director resigned, but, according to Davis, that didn’t stop the unlawful behavior, as her direct supervisor retaliated against her for reporting the harassment. Davis filed an “intake questionnaire” in February 2011 and a charge in March 2011. While her charge was pending, Fort Bend terminated Davis after she declined to report for work on a Sunday and attended church instead. Attempting to supplement her allegations in her EEOC charge, Davis handwrote “religion” on the intake questionnaire, and she also checked boxes for “discharge” and “reasonable accommodation” on that form.
After the Department of Justice issued her a right-to-sue letter (signifying its determination that there was no reasonable cause to believe that the charge was true), Davis filed suit in a Texas federal court, alleging discrimination on account of religion and retaliation for reporting sexual harassment. The court granted summary judgment to the employer on all claims, but the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed on the religion-based discrimination claim. The Supreme Court denied review. On remand to the district court, now years into the litigation, the employer asserted for the first time that the court lacked jurisdiction to adjudicate Davis’ religion-based discrimination claim because she had not properly noted that claim in her charge. The district court agreed with the County, holding that the charge requirement had not been met, and that because it was “jurisdictional,” the County could raise it any time in the litigation. The Fifth Circuit reversed, holding that the charge-filing requirement was not jurisdictional, but rather a mandatory claim-processing rule, and that Fort Bend had forfeited its right to rely on the charge-filing requirement as grounds for dismissal because it raised the issue too late in the litigation.
The Supreme Court unanimously affirmed. The Court concluded that the charge-filing requirement of Title VII is not a non-waivable jurisdictional rule, but is instead a mandatory claim-processing rule that can be waived if the party invoking it waits too long. Truly “jurisdictional” requirements are those that establish the classes of cases a court may or may not entertain (subject matter jurisdiction) and the persons over whom the court may or may not exercise adjudicatory authority (personal jurisdiction). Truly jurisdictional requirements can be asserted at any point in the litigation; indeed, courts must address jurisdictional issues even when they are not raised by the parties. In contrast, claim-processing rules simply “seek to promote the orderly progress of litigation by requiring that the parties take certain procedural steps at certain specified times,” are not jurisdictional. Such rules may be “mandatory” in the sense that a court must enforce them if a party properly raises them, but an objection based on a mandatory claim-processing rule can be forfeited if the party who raises it waited too long. That describes the charge-filing requirement of Title VII. It’s not part of any statute that gives federal courts the power to hear Title VII claims. It’s instead contained in a part of Tile VII that speaks only to a party’s procedural obligations when bringing such claims. Because the County waited too long to raise the issue of the adequacy of Davis’s charge, it forfeited the opportunity to rely on the issue.