Waiting Too Long to Object: Supreme Court Rules Employer Lost the Right to Raise Technical Objection to Title VII Complaint
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 protects all California employees from workplace discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. If an employer violates Title VII, the employee may pursue a civil lawsuit in federal court. However, the law first instructs the employee to file a formal discrimination charge with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).
The reason for this notice is to give the EEOC an opportunity to conduct its own investigation into the alleged employment discrimination. The EEOC may attempt to informally negotiate a resolution between you and your employer. If that fails, the EEOC can either initiate a civil lawsuit against the employer directly, or give you a “right-to-sue” letter, authorizing you to file your own lawsuit.
Plaintiff Allowed to Proceed with Religious Discrimination Claim Despite Lack of Prior EEOC Charge
On June 3, 2019, the U.S. Supreme Court issued an important decision clarifying the role EEOC notification plays in establishing an employee’s ability to sue their employer. This particular case, Fort Bend County v. Davis (No. 18-525), addressed a technical question of law: Is filing an EEOC charge necessary to establish a federal court’s “jurisdiction” to hear a discrimination lawsuit?
Here is what happened. The plaintiff in this case worked for Fort Bend County, Indiana. During her employment, the plaintiff alleged she was the subject of sexual harassment and retaliation. She filed a charge with the EEOC on those grounds in 2011. While the EEOC investigated the charge, the plaintiff said the County fired her after she took time off from work to attend church.
The plaintiff ultimately received a right-to-sue letter on her original complaint of sex discrimination. She then sued Fort Bend County for both sexual harassment and “discrimination on account of religion.” Several years into the litigation, Fort Bend County argued the trial court lacked “jurisdiction” over the religious discrimination allegation, as it was never part of the plaintiff’s EEOC charge.
The Supreme Court, however, unanimously held that this was not a jurisdictional issue. Rather, the charge-filing requirement was a “nonjurisdictional claim-processing rule.” As Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg explained in her decision for the Court, a jurisdictional rule refers to limits on the “classes of cases a court may entertain.” Because lack of jurisdiction deprives a court of the ability to hear a case at all, a party can raise a jurisdictional challenge “at any point in the litigation.”
In contrast, an objection based on a nonjurisdictional rule–such as Title VII’s charge requirement–may be forfeited if the objecting party “waits too long to raise the point.” That is essentially what happened here. Fort Bend County could have objected to the plaintiff’s religious discrimination allegations earlier in the case. By not doing so it waived the right to argue she failed to comply with the EEOC charge rule.
What the Court’s Ruling Means for California Workers
Although this case may sound like nothing more than a lawyerly debate over a technical rule, the Supreme Court’s decision is actually welcome news for all California employees. Many employment discrimination cases are prematurely rejected due to procedural issues. That is why if you have been the victim of any form of workplace discrimination, it is a good idea to consult with an experienced California employment discrimination law attorney as soon as possible.