The Supreme Court issued a ruling on June 3, 2019, in a case (Fort Bend County v. Davis)  involving whether a court may hear a discrimination case where the plaintiff fails to raise all charges in an initial EEOC complaint.  The Court found that the Title VII’s rules are procedural, not jurisdictional, and as such procedural defenses need to be raised early in a case.

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 requires people who believe that they have been discriminated against in the workplace based on race, color, religion, sex, or natural origin, to file a charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).  The EEOC receives the charge, notifies the employer, and investigates the allegations. It may attempt to mediate a dispute. The EEOC is given the first opportunity to file a lawsuit against the employer in civil court, but if the EEOC decides not to sue, it will issue a “right-to-sue” notice 180 days after the initial charge is filed so the plaintiff can file his or her lawsuit.

Through this process, the EEOC does not have any ability to make any legal determinations against or for the employer, but primarily functions to attempt pre-litigation resolution, or in some cases, the EEOC might decide to file the case itself.

So that brings us to the facts of this case.  Lois Davis was employed by Fort Bend County in Texas. She filed two charges with the EEOC – that she was sexually harassed and that she had been retaliated against for reporting the harassment.

While her EEOC charges were pending, the County fired Davis claiming that she had failed to show up to work when she did not attend work on a Sunday and went to a church event instead.

On her EEOC “intake questionnaire,” David hand wrote the word “religion” but never amended the formal charge document which only mentioned sexual harassment and retaliation.

The case went forward on sexual harassment and retaliation, and she was unsuccessful in her sexual harassment and retaliation claims leaving only the religious claim which was not formally covered by the “right-to-sue” letter. Davis continued to pursue the religion issue, and it wasn’t until several years into the litigation that the County asserted that it was too late since her formal EEOC charge did not mention a religion-based claim.

So the question became whether the federal courts had jurisdiction to hear the religion issue since it had not been formally raised in the initial formal complaint. At the lowest level, the District Court agreed with the County that the religion claim was out. The Fifth Circuit reversed, saying that Title VII’s EEOC process is not jurisdictional but instead was a “prudential prerequisite” to a lawsuit and that the County had waited too long to raise the fact that it wasn’t in the EEOC’s original complaint.

The Supreme Court found that in this case, the County should have raised the argument much earlier, and was barred from asserting it so late in the game.   The County should have raised it when it first arose.  Justice Ginsburg points out that this decision does not mean that plaintiffs can ignore their obligation to raise all potential in the initial EEOC charge, but instead notes, essentially, that Davis was lucky. Ginsburg wrote, “[R]ecognizing that the charge-filing requirement is nonjurisdictional gives plaintiffs scant incentive to skirt the instruction. Defendants, after all, have good reason promptly to raise an objection that may rid them of the lawsuit filed against them. A Title VII complainant would be foolhardy consciously to take the risk that the employer would forgo a potentially dispositive defense.”


Takeaway: Whether a court has jurisdiction means whether a particular court can decide a particular kind of complaint.

Parties can normally raise the issue of jurisdiction to assert that a court can’t hear a claim at any point in litigation. However, be sure that the issue is legitimately jurisdictional and not just a “claim-processing rule.” Practically speaking, if you’re a plaintiff, include all potential complaints in the initial EEOC charge.  If you’re a defendant, raise defenses to charges that are filed outside of the rules immediately.




Fort Bend County v. Davis (Docket No. 18-525, Dec'd 6/3/2019)


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