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Title VII’s charge-filing requirement is not of jurisdictional cast. Federal courts exercise jurisdiction over Title VII actions pursuant to 28 U.S.C.S. § 1331’s grant of general federal-question jurisdiction, and Title VII’s own jurisdictional provision, 42 U.S.C.S. § 2000e-5(f)(3), giving federal courts jurisdiction over actions brought under this subchapter. Separate provisions of Title VII, § 2000e-5(e)(1) and (f)(1), contain the Act’s charge-filing requirement. Those provisions do not speak to a court’s authority, or refer in any way to the jurisdiction of the district courts.
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits discrimination in employment on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. 42 U. S. C. §2000e-2(a)(1). The Act instructs a complainant, before commencing a Title VII action in court, to file a charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC or Commission). §2000e‒5(e)(1), (f)(1). On receipt of a charge, the EEOC is to notify the employer and investigate the allegations. §2000e‒5(b). The Commission may “endeavor to eliminate [the] alleged unlawful employment practice by informal methods of . . . conciliation.” The EEOC also has first option to “bring a civil action” against the employer in court. §2000e‒5(f)(1). But the Commission has no authority itself to adjudicate discrimination complaints. If the EEOC chooses not to sue, and whether or not the EEOC otherwise acts on the charge, a complainant is entitled to a “right-to-sue” notice 180 days after the charge is filed. On receipt of the right-to-sue notice, the complainant may commence a civil action against her employer.
Respondent Lois M. Davis filed a charge against her employer, petitioner Fort Bend County. Davis alleged sexual harassment and retaliation for reporting the harassment. While her EEOC charge was pending, Fort Bend fired Davis because she failed to show up for work on a Sunday and went to a church event instead. Davis attempted to supplement her EEOC charge by handwriting “religion” on a form called an “intake questionnaire,” but she did not amend the formal charge document. Upon receiving a right-to-sue letter, Davis commenced suit in Federal District Court, alleging discrimination on account of religion and retaliation for reporting sexual harassment.
After years of litigation, only the religion-based discrimination claim remained in the case. Fort Bend then asserted for the first time that the District Court lacked jurisdiction to adjudicate Davis' case because her EEOC charge did not state a religion-based discrimination claim. The District Court agreed and granted Fort Bend's motion to dismiss Davis' suit. On appeal from the dismissal, the Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit reversed. Title VII's charge-filing requirement, the Court of Appeals held, is not jurisdictional; instead, the requirement is a prudential prerequisite to suit, forfeited in Davis' case because Fort Bend had waited too long to raise the objection.
Is Title VII's charge-filing requirement jurisdictional?
The court held that Title VII's charge-filing requirement, 42 U.S.C.S. § 2000e-5(e), which spoke to a party's procedural obligations, was a mandatory processing rule, not a jurisdictional prescription delineating the adjudicatory nature of the courts. Accordingly, where a former employee filed an EEOC charge alleging sexual harassment and retaliation, and where she later handwrote religious discrimination on the intake questionnaire but did not make any change in the formal charge document, and where after several years of litigation, the employer asserted that the district court lacked jurisdiction over the religion-based claim as it was not stated in the EEOC charge, dismissal of the suit was properly reversed because Title VII's charge-filing requirement was not jurisdictional but a prudential prerequisite to suit, and the employer forfeited that claim because it did not timely raise it.