A former Fort Bend County worker who claimed that she had been sexually harassed and faced religious discrimination will now be allowed to pursue her claims in federal court, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled Monday.
In a 9-0 decision, the Supreme Court dealt a significant legal blow to businesses facing discrimination lawsuits by ruling that an employer who waits too long can lose the right to argue that the employee didn’t exhaust all administration remedies.
Business advocates were concerned that the high court decision could strip some elements of a common legal defense used to get worker claims dismissed, but some employment lawyers said the specific circumstances of the case may keep it narrow in its overall effect.
The 11-page opinion authored by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg stated that the requirement of the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964, under Title VII, that employees first file a claim with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission before bringing a lawsuit is a procedural mandate – not a jurisdictional requirement.
As a result, the federal courts may hear such claims and employees may be permitted to file their allegations with the EEOC or state agencies at various times throughout the dispute.
Most experts say that at the very least the case should be a cautionary tale for companies and their lawyers to pay close attention to all possible claims of the employee early in the litigation.
Rachel Steely, a partner in Foley Gardere’s Houston office who represents employers, said the ruling “doesn’t let defendants sit on their hands” when they have information about employees bring a claim not originally in their EEOC charge.
“You need to do a a good review of what the charge is and what the allegations are, and make sure you have a defense early on,” Steely said. “Make it a priority to have that defense early on. And if you don’t see it, file a motion to dismiss. Bring it up early. The sooner the better.”
Raffi Melkonian, the Houston lawyer who won Monday’s Supreme Court decision for the plaintiff, concurred.
“Don’t stay silent about it because you lose the defense if you do,” said Melkonian, a partner at Wright Close & Barger.
Lois Davis, who worked for Fort Bend County as an information technology employee, sued the county after she was fired in 2011 when it denied her time off from a Sunday work assignment and she attended church instead. She alleged religious discrimination against the county and other claims under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.
At the time, Davis already had a pending complaint to the EEOC against Fort Bend County related to sexual harassment allegations. After she was fired, she tried to supplement her EEOC charge by handwriting “religion” on the “intake questionnaire” form. Once the EEOC granted her right to sue, she continued in federal court in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas alleging religious discrimination against her former employer as a form of retaliation for reporting sexual harassment.
After several years of litigation, only the religious discrimination charge remained in the case. U.S. District Judge Melinda Harmon then dismissed the lawsuit, siding with Fort Bend County’s argument that the court lacked jurisdiction to adjudicate Davis’ case since the EEOC charge did not state a religion-based claim.
But the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit reversed the trial court’s ruling, holding that Title VII’s charge-filing requirement is not jurisdictional, instead a “prudential prerequisite to suit” – a procedural qualification – which was forfeited in this situation since Fort Bend had waited too long to raise the objection.
After Fort Bend County appealed, the question posed to the Supreme Court was whether Title VII’s charge-filing precondition to suit was a jurisdictional requirement – whose absence could determine the court’s authority to hear the lawsuit; or whether the rule is simply a procedural prescription that becomes irrelevant if not challenged on a timely basis.
Justice Ginsburg wrote in the unanimous opinion that it was the latter.
“Prerequisites to suit like Title VII’s charge-filing instruction are not of that character; they are properly ranked among the array of claim-processing rules that must be timely raised to come into play,” she wrote.
Brian Patterson, a partner in Akin Gump’s Houston office who represents employers, said Monday’s decision won’t change the way employees file an EEOC charge, but will require defendants to “pay more careful attention to the initial complaint.”
“It definitely causes me some concern for the potential for me that the possibility to inadvertently waive a defense is higher now, but you’d hope that all outside counsel are already carefully reviewing charges and the complaint in issue in affirmative defenses of motions to dismiss early on,” he said.
Russell Cawyer, a lawyer at Kelly Hart & Hallman in Fort Worth, said the decision may affect where an employee decides to file their discrimination claim.
Plaintiffs’ lawyers historically prefer state court over federal due to rigorous procedural demands of federal law. But because the Texas Supreme Court has held — contrary to Monday’s Supreme Court ruling — that whether employees can pursue their claims without initially reporting the claims with the EEOC is indeed a jurisdiction issue, that may cause more plaintiffs’ lawyers to file Title VII claims in federal court, Cawyer said.
Although the Texas Supreme Court is the ultimate authority in interpreting Texas state law, he said state courts often will look at federal precedent — thus Monday’s opinion — when interpreting Texas labor laws.
As a result, Cawyer said Monday’s opinion won’t necessarily “trump” what the Texas Supreme Court has said in the past, but “may influence it going forward.”
“It will mean there are fewer cases found in favor of employers because of the charging parties did not timely file their charges of discrimination,” Cawyer said.
Justice Ginsburg’s opinion was also a birthday present for Melkonian, who turned 40 on Monday.
“That is one killer birthday present, Justice Ginsburg! Thank you!” Melkonian said Monday morning on Twitter. “In all seriousness, we are delighted, and we look forward to delivering the justice for Ms. Davis in front of a Texas jury.”
Melkonian, a prolific tweeter known in #AppellateTwitter legal circles for his entertaining and humorous musings about life as a lawyer, joked in another tweet that he knew a unanimous SCOTUS win isn’t a “Grammy or whatever,” but he still wanted to tweet out a “couple of thank yous.”
“First, to our client, who has stuck with us for six years of tortuous litigation,” he said on Twitter. “She inspires all of us here. Second, to our indomitable co-counsel at Stanford Law… Next, to this firm, who stuck with *me* when it didn’t need to. Thanks as well, to the SCOTUS bar, who was incredibly generous to me. Advice, logistics, mooting — you all could have been just dismissive and you were not. Thank you.”
“And finally, to my family, who dealt with me disappearing into a dark web of jurisdictional analysis for a couple of weeks and trooped out to D.C. with me,” he added. “Indeed, had my wife not said ‘yes’ when I asked if I could go halfway across the country to clerk…”
Melkonian, who argued the case April 22, said he and his client are grateful for the decision “because it ensures a fairer system for all victims of employment discrimination. It also clarifies the process for employers and governments.”
Though she is not trying to get her job back, Davis said in a statement, she’s “happy to know that this will mean a fairer route for other employees who claim discrimination.”
The Wright Close & Barger team also included Tom Wright and Russell Hollenbeck. Co-counsel included Brian Fletcher and Pam Karlan of the Stanford Law School Supreme Court litigation clinic.
Hogan Lovells’ Washington, D.C. office handled the appeal for Fort Bend County.