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Title VII Discrimination Claims Can Go Straight to Federal Court Rules Supreme Court

On Monday, June 3, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously ruled federal courts can hear discrimination claims under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act even if they are not first brought to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) or comparable state agency.

Traditionally, plaintiffs alleging workplace discrimination must first exhaust their administrative remedies before pursuing a claim in court.  The Supreme Court, however, said Title VII’s requirement that workers give the EEOC or state agency a chance to resolve claims before bringing them in court is not “jurisdictional.”  The court held jurisdiction is “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)” and the requirement of Title VII that cases first be filed with an administrative agency does not impose a specific jurisdictional requirement on the courts.

The case is Fort Bend County v. Davis. In the case, a Fifth Circuit court revived former Fort Bend County worker Lois Davis’ claims that the County violated Title VII by firing her for missing work because of a religious commitment.  Davis filed a retaliation and sex bias charge with the Texas state agency which oversees workplace discrimination, which she later supplemented with a form on which she wrote “religion” in the margin.  The County claimed her writing “religion” in the margin of a supplemental form did not make it a valid charge and therefore she did not exhaust her remedies with regard to the religious discrimination charge.  The Fifth Circuit, however, said it didn’t matter whether Davis alerted state or federal agencies to her religious discrimination claim before suing because the requirement is not jurisdictional. (The County waived its failure-to-exhaust defense by not timely raising it and therefore, the Fifth Circuit allowed Davis’ claims to proceed in court.)

The Supreme Court’s ruling means courts are not forced to reject plaintiff’s claims just because he or she did not file with the state or federal agency first.  It is important to note – employers may still defend these charges by showing the plaintiff failed to exhaust their administrative remedies, however this defense must be brought early or it is waived. 

The High Court’s ruling has a number of ramifications for employers.  First, employers may be blindsided by litigation before they have warning of claims first filed with a state or federal agency.  Second, employers facing such litigation must remember it is no longer an automatic bar to suit when a plaintiff does not first file an agency charge.  The “must exhaust administrative remedies” defense hasn’t gone away – but it has officially become harder to win. The defense must be timely raised in order to even be considered.  Even then – it is not clear if a court will reject the case.

Brody and Associates regularly provides training and counseling on maintaining a harassment free environment and on employment law issues in general. If we can be of assistance in this area, please contact us at info@brodyandassociates.com or 203.454.0560.