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Fort Bend County v. Davis

United States Supreme Court

June 3, 2019

FORT BEND COUNTY, TEXAS, PETITIONER
v.
LOIS M. DAVIS

          Argued April 22, 2019

          CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE FIFTH CIRCUIT

         Syllabus

         Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits discrimination in employment on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. 42 U.S.C. §2000e-2(a)(1). The Act instructs a complainant, before commencing a Title VII action in court, to file a charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC or Commission). §2000e-5(e)(1), (f)(1). On receipt of a charge, the EEOC is to notify the employer and investigate the allegations. §2000e-5(b). The Commission may "endeavor to eliminate [the] alleged unlawful employment practice by informal methods of . . . conciliation." Ibid. The EEOC also has first option to "bring a civil action" against the employer in court. §2000e-5(f)(1). But the Commission has no authority itself to adjudicate discrimination complaints. If the EEOC chooses not to sue, and whether or not the EEOC otherwise acts on the charge, a complainant is entitled to a "right-to-sue" notice 180 days after the charge is filed. Ibid.; 29 CFR §1601.28. On receipt of the right-to-sue notice, the complainant may commence a civil action against her employer. §2000e-5(f)(1).

         Respondent Lois M. Davis filed a charge against her employer, petitioner Fort Bend County. Davis alleged sexual harassment and retaliation for reporting the harassment. While her EEOC charge was pending, Fort Bend fired Davis because she failed to show up for work on a Sunday and went to a church event instead. Davis attempted to supplement her EEOC charge by handwriting "religion" on a form called an "intake questionnaire," but she did not amend the formal charge document. Upon receiving a right-to-sue letter, Davis commenced suit in Federal District Court, alleging discrimination on account of religion and retaliation for reporting sexual harassment. After years of litigation, only the religion-based discrimination claim remained in the case. Fort Bend then asserted for the first time that the District Court lacked jurisdiction to adjudicate Davis' case because her EEOC charge did not state a religion-based discrimination claim. The District Court agreed and granted Fort Bend's motion to dismiss Davis' suit. On appeal from the dismissal, the Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit reversed. Title VII's charge-filing requirement, the Court of Appeals held, is not jurisdictional; instead, the requirement is a prudential prerequisite to suit, forfeited in Davis' case because Fort Bend had waited too long to raise the objection.

         Held: Title VII's charge-filing requirement is not jurisdictional. Pp. 5- 11.

(a)The word "jurisdictional" is generally reserved for prescriptions delineating the classes of cases a court may entertain (subject-matter jurisdiction) and the persons over whom the court may exercise adjudicatory authority (personal jurisdiction). Kontrick v. Ryan, 540 U.S. 443, 455. A claim-processing rule requiring parties to take certain procedural steps in, or prior to, litigation, may be mandatory in the sense that a court must enforce the rule if timely raised. Eberhart v. United States, 546 U.S. 12, 19. But a mandatory rule of that sort, unlike a prescription limiting the kinds of cases a court may adjudicate, is ordinarily forfeited if not timely asserted. Id., at 15. Pp. 5-9.
(b)Title VII's charge-filing requirement is a nonjurisdictional claim-processing rule. The requirement is stated in provisions of Title VII discrete from the statutory provisions empowering federal courts to exercise jurisdiction over Title VII actions. The charge-filing instruction is kin to prescriptions the Court has ranked as nonjurisdictional-for example, directions to raise objections in an agency rulemaking before asserting them in court, EPA v. EME Homer City Generation, L. P., 572 U.S. 489, 511-512, or to follow procedures governing copyright registration before suing for infringement, Reed Elsevier, Inc. v. Muchnick, 559 U.S. 154, 157. Pp. 9-11.

893 F.3d 300, affirmed.

          OPINION

          GiNSBURG JUSTICE

         Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 proscribes discrimination in employment on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. 78 Stat. 255, 42 U.S.C. §2000e-2(a)(1). The Act also prohibits retaliation against persons who assert rights under the statute. §2000e-3(a). As a precondition to the commencement of a Title VII action in court, a complainant must first file a charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC or Commission). §2000e-5(e)(1), (f)(1). The question this case presents: Is Title VII's charge-filing precondition to suit a "jurisdictional" requirement that can be raised at any stage of a proceeding; or is it a procedural prescription mandatory if timely raised, but subject to forfeiture if tardily asserted? We hold that Title VII's charge-filing instruction is not jurisdictional, a term generally reserved to describe the classes of cases a court may entertain (subject-matter jurisdiction) or the persons over whom a court may exercise adjudicatory authority (personal jurisdiction). Kontrick v. Ryan, 540 U.S. 443, 455 (2004). Prerequisites to suit like Title VII's charge-filing instruction are not of that character; they are properly ranked among the array of claim-processing rules that must be timely raised to come into play.

         I

         Title VII directs that a "charge . . . shall be filed" with the EEOC "by or on behalf of a person claiming to be aggrieved" within 180 days "after the alleged unlawful employment practice occur[s]." 42 U.S.C. §2000e-5(b), (e)(1). For complaints concerning a practice occurring in a State or political subdivision that has a fair employment agency of its own empowered "to grant or seek relief," Title VII instructs the complainant to file her charge first with the state or local agency. §2000e-5(c). The complainant then has 300 days following the challenged practice, or 30 days after receiving notice that state or local proceedings have ended, "whichever is earlier," to file a charge with the EEOC. §2000e-5(e)(1). If the state or local agency has a "worksharing" agreement with the EEOC, a complainant ordinarily need not file separately with federal and state agencies. She may file her charge with one agency, and that agency will then relay the charge to the other. See 29 CFR §1601.13 (2018); Brief for United States as Amicus Curiae 3.

         When the EEOC receives a charge, in contrast to agencies like the National Labor Relations Board, 29 U.S.C. §160, and the Merit Systems Protection Board, 5 U.S.C. §1204, it does not "adjudicate [the] clai[m]," Alexander v. Gardner-Denver Co.,415 U.S. 36, 44 (1974). Instead, Title VII calls for the following course. Upon receiving a charge, the EEOC notifies the employer and investigates the allegations. 42 U.S.C. §2000e-5(b). If the Commission finds "reasonable cause" to believe the charge is true, the Act instructs the Commission to "endeavor to eliminate [the] alleged unlawful employment practice by informal methods of conference, conciliation, and persuasion." Ibid. When informal methods do not resolve the charge, the EEOC has first option to "bring a civil action" against the employer in court. ...


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