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Employer objects too late to missing EEOC claim: Supreme Court

Supreme Court ruling

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled Monday that an employer took too long to object that a U.S. Equal Employment Commission complaint did not match a claim in litigation that was later filed.

The court’s unanimous ruling in Fort Bend County v. Lois M. Davis case revolves around the issue that employees filing suit under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 must first file a complaint with the EEOC. Once the agency receives the complaint, it either pursues the case itself, or gives the employee the right to sue.

The procedural ruling reminds employers to immediately check if litigation filed under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 conforms to the previously filed EEOC complaint, according to an expert.

In 2010, Lois Davis, who worked in information technology for Richmond, Texas-based Fort Bend County, informed the county’s human resources department that her director was sexually harassing her.

Following an investigation, the director resigned, but Ms. Davis’ supervisor allegedly began retaliating against her for reporting the harassment by curtailing her work responsibilities.

Ms. Davis filed a charge with the EEOC in March 2011. While the charge was pending, Ms. Davis was told to report to work on an upcoming Sunday.

She told the supervisor she had a church commitment that day and offered to arrange for another employee to replace her at work. The supervisor responded if she did not show up for the Sunday work, she would be terminated. Ms. Davis went to church, and was fired.

In an attempt to supplement the allegations in her charge, Ms. Davis handwrote “religion” on the “Employment Harms or Actions” part of her EEOC intake questionnaire but made no change in the formal charge document. A few months later, Ms. Davis was informed of her right to sue. She filed suit in U.S. District Court in Houston charging retaliation and religion-based discrimination.

The U.S. District judge in Houston granted the county summary judgment dismissing the case on both charges. On appeal, the 5th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals in New Orleans affirmed dismissal of the retaliation claim, but reinstated Ms. Davis’ religion-based discrimination claim, according to the ruling. Fort Bend sought a hearing in the case to the Supreme Court, which was denied.

On remand at a point that was “years into the litigation,” Fort Bend asserted for the first time that the District Court did not have jurisdiction to adjudicate Ms. Davis’ religious discrimination claim “because she had not stated such a claim in her EEOC charge,” said the ruling. The District Court granted the county dismissal of the case on that basis.

The 5th Circuit reversed that ruling, stating this was not a jurisdictional issue, which is “nonforfeitable.” It said the requirement that Ms. Davis report the religious discrimination claim in her EEOC complaint was a “prudential prerequisite to suit” that the county forfeited because it did not raise it until after “an entire round of appeals all the way to the Supreme Court,” said the ruling, quoting the 5th Circuit ruling.

The Supreme Court granted certiorari in the case because of a conflict among the courts of appeal on this issue. In upholding the 5th Circuit ruling, the court said it has “stressed the distinction between jurisdictional prescriptions and nonjurisdictional claims-processing rules, which “seek to promote the orderly progress of litigation by requiring that the parties take certain procedural steps at certain specified items,” said the ruling, in quoting an earlier case.

“But an objection based on a mandatory claim-processing rule may be forfeited ‘if the party asserting the rule waits too long to raise the point,’” said the court, in citing an earlier case.

This was the case here, the high court held in the opinion delivered by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. “Title VII’s charge-filing requirement is a processing rule, albeit a mandatory one, not a jurisdictional prescription delineating the adjudicatory authority of courts,” it said, in upholding the 5th Circuit’s ruling.

Ms. Davis’ attorney, R. Russell Hollenbeck, a partner with Wright Close & Barger LLP in Houston, said, “We’re obviously very pleased about it, and we are grateful for this important decision, which ensures a fairer system for all victims of employment discrimination. It clarifies this important process for employers and governments, as well as employees.”

Mr. Hollenbeck said the case will be remanded to the District Court for trial on the merits of the religious discrimination claim.

The county’s attorney did not respond to a request for comment.

Discussing the ruling, Paul E. Goatley, an associate with Fisher & Phillips LLP in Louisville, Kentucky, who was not involved in the case, said its “practical impact really hasn’t moved the needle that much.’

 Basically, he said, it requires employers who are sued by employees to compare the lawsuit’s allegations with the claims included in the employee’s EEOC complaint — which they should be doing anyway — and move to dismiss the case if there is any difference between the two. This must be done at the case’s beginning, he said. The ruling is “pretty straightforward,” Mr. Goatley said.




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