U.S. Supreme Court Rejects Employer's Technical Defense in Religious Discrimination Case

For years, employers have argued that employees’ claims should be dismissed when they have not properly filed a Charge of Discrimination (“charge”) with the EEOC or the respective state agency. The argument was that if an employee had not followed each step correctly, a court did not have jurisdiction to hear the case. The steps at issue included things like filing a charge too late, or not having all of the proper wording in a charge to raise all of the employee’s claims against the employer.

Without jurisdiction, a court does not have the right to hear a case at all, whether or not an employee has a strong case. Sometimes, courts receive these motions to toss cases out only after an employee and his or her attorney pursue a case for years. That’s what happened in Fort Bend County, Texas v. Davis, 587 U.S. ___ (2019). The Supreme Court (Ginsburg, J.), wrote that Title VII’s charge filing rules do not govern whether a court has jurisdiction over an employee’s case at all. Instead, these rules are just “claims-processing” rules. They are still mandatory rules, but if an employer waits too long to raise the problem with the trial court, the court is not required to throw out the case.

The Fort Bend opinion did not change the rules about filing charges. It does open a door for courts to consider whether an employer’s objections are timely and if not, whether an employee should be allowed to proceed with his or her case even if they filed a bad charge. At the end of the opinion, the Court cautioned both employers and employees. Employees are still expected to file timely and complete charges, or risk losing a case. Employers must now timely object to problems they see with a charge so a judge can decide early on whether the case can move forward. There will be a slew of new cases testing the scope of the Fort Bend decision, but no one should rely on it to save them from missing a deadline or faiiling to raise an affirmative defense early on in a lawsuit.

The Fort Bend decision reminds all of us to carefully consider our claims, deadlines and defenses. If you have questions about the deadlines that apply to discrimination and harassment claims, do not hesitate to contact Deena Buchanan at deena@dbuchananlaw.com or 505-900-3559. You can also read the full opinion here https://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/18pdf/18-525_m6hn.pdf.