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With all the speculation about philosophical differences among U.S. Supreme Court justices, they recently released an opinion in which they spoke with one voice in a unanimous ruling about an important aspect of federal anti-discrimination law. Specifically, the Court announced that Title VII’s requirement that an employee file a claim for illegal discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission before filing a suit in federal court is a procedural, claim-processing rule, not a jurisdictional rule.

What does Title VII say?

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 forbids discrimination in the workplace based on religion, sex, race, color, or national origin. Prior to filing a Title VII lawsuit in court, an employee alleging discrimination must first file a charge of discrimination (or harassment or retaliation) with the EEOC, the federal government agency responsible for enforcing federal anti-discrimination laws.

The EEOC investigates the allegations and may try to resolve the claim through “informal … conciliation,” or it may sue the employer on the employee’s behalf. If the EEOC elects not to pursue a claim, it must give the employee a right-to-sue notice within 180 days from the date the agency received the charge. This notice gives the employee permission to sue the employer in federal court.

What happened in the Supreme Court case?

In Fort Bend County, Texas v. Davis, Lois Davis filed a charge with the EEOC against her employer alleging a violation of Title VII for sexual harassment and retaliation. While the charge was before the EEOC, an incident prompted Davis to add a charge of religious discrimination, but she only put it on a questionnaire, not on the actual charge document.

She received her right-to-sue notice and filed the Title VII suit in federal court. The litigation was long and complex, and after several years, only the religious discrimination claim remained. At that point, the employer asked the court to dismiss the suit because Davis had not officially added that part of the claim before the EEOC. On that basis, it claimed the court had no jurisdiction because Davis had violated the rule that the employee first file the claim before the EEOC, and the U.S. District Court agreed.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit reversed, and the case went to the high court, which agreed with the appeals court that the claim could proceed.

Key takeaways

A court may only decide a dispute if it has jurisdiction, meaning it concerns a subject matter and involves parties over which the law allows the court to exercise authority. Neither the court nor the parties may waive jurisdiction. If there is no jurisdiction, the court may not decide the case. A party may raise a jurisdictional issue at any time.

The Supreme Court decided that the requirement of filing a discrimination claim with the EEOC first is not jurisdictional, but rather a “claim-processing rule” that a defendant-employer can forfeit by not raising it in a timely fashion. Because the employer did not object to the religious discrimination allegation until five years had passed, the court said the employer had forfeited the defense by raising it too late, so Davis could proceed with this claim in court.

Employees filing discrimination claims with the EEOC must be thorough and include all the legal bases for the claim correctly. However, if the employee misses or incorrectly amends part of the claim and the employer does not object right away, the employer may have waived the argument.

Employers must carefully examine all EEOC document submission and court filings to see if the claim-processing rule was broken. If so, the objection should immediately be raised with the court to avoid waiving by untimeliness. The Supreme Court did not explicitly establish a specific time frame for objecting, so the sooner, the better.