SCOTUS Limits Administrative Exhaustion Rule for Title VII Lawsuits

A unanimous decision in Fort Bend County v. Davis allows a former local government worker to pursue a religious discrimination claim that was never investigated by the EEOC or an analogous state agency.

More broadly, the ruling largely invalidates the procedural rule for Title VII claims called “administrative exhaustion.” Under the rule, which some courts had waived in specific cases, plaintiffs lacked grounds for bringing lawsuits on their own behalf unless they received a right to sue letter or some other acknowledgement that their claim had been officially investigated and subjected to other means of resolution.

Employers often invoked administrative exhaustion when petitioning courts to dismiss discrimination claims. Now, as attorney JoLynn Markison told HR Drive, employers “may not raise the defense of failure to exhaust ‘at any point in the litigation,’ nor must a court consider it sua sponte. The onus is on you to timely assert a plaintiff’s failure to meet Title VII’s charge-filing requirement, lest you waive that defense.”

IPMA-HR supported Fort Bend County in this appeal, joining in an amici curiae that argued for enforcing the administrative exhaustion rule because “this procedure promotes judicial efficiency and resolution of disputes inexpensively and outside of court.”

Writing for the Supreme Court, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg noted

Title VII’s charge-filing requirement is a nonjurisdictional claim-processing rule. The requirement is stated in provisions of Title VII discrete from the statutory provisions empowering federal courts to exercise jurisdiction over Title VII actions. The charge-filing instruction is kin to prescriptions the Court has ranked as nonjurisdictional—for example, directions to raise objections in an agency rulemaking before asserting them in court or to follow procedures governing copyright registration before suing for infringement. [citations omitted]
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