Arbaugh v. Y & H Corp.

Citation163 L. Ed. 2d 1097,546 U.S. 500,126 S. Ct. 1235
Decision Date22 February 2006
Docket NumberNo. 04-944.,04-944.
CourtUnited States Supreme Court

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 makes it unlawful for "an employer ... to discriminate against any [employee] with respect to ... sex," 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-2(a)(1), and defines "employer" as "a person . . . who has fifteen or more employees," § 2000e(b). The Act's jurisdictional provision empowers federal courts to adjudicate civil actions "brought under" Title VII. § 2000e-5(f)(3). Title VII actions also fit within the Judicial Code's grant of subject-matter jurisdiction to federal courts over actions "arising under" federal law. 28 U.S.C. § 1331. At the time Title VII was enacted, § 1331 contained a $10,000 amount-in-controversy threshold, which left Title VII claims below that amount uncovered. Section 2000e-5(f)(3) assured that the amountin-controversy limitation would not impede a Title VII complainant's access to a federal forum. Since 1980, when Congress amended § 1331 to eliminate the amount-in-controversy threshold, § 2000e-5(f)(3) has served simply to underscore Congress' intention to provide a federal forum for Title VII claims. Because Congress has also authorized federal courts to exercise "supplemental" jurisdiction over state-law claims linked to a federal claim, 28 U.S.C. § 1367, Title VII plaintiffs may pursue complete relief in federal court.

The objection that a federal court lacks subject-matter jurisdiction, see Fed. Rule Civ. Proc. 12(b)(1), may be raised at any stage in the litigation, even after trial and the entry of judgment, Rule 12(h)(3). See Kontrick v. Ryan, 540 U.S. 443, 455. By contrast, the objection that a complaint "fail[s] to state a claim upon which relief can be granted," Rule 12(b)(6), endures only up to, not beyond, trial on the merits, Rule 12(h)(2).

Petitioner Arbaugh sued her former employer, respondent Y & H Corporation (Y&H), in Federal District Court, charging sexual harassment in violation of Title VII and asserting related state-law claims. The case was tried to a jury, which returned a verdict for Arbaugh. After the court entered judgment on that verdict, Y&H moved to dismiss the entire action for want of federal subject-matter jurisdiction, asserting, for the first time, that it had fewer than 15 employees on its payroll and therefore was not amenable to suit under Title VII. Al

[546 U.S. 501]

though recognizing the unfairness and waste of judicial resources that granting the motion would entail, the District Court, citing Federal Rule 12(h)(3), considered itself obliged to do so because it believed the 15-or-more-employees requirement to be jurisdictional. It therefore vacated its prior judgment and dismissed Arbaugh's Title VII claim with prejudice and her state-law claims without prejudice. The Fifth Circuit affirmed based on its precedent holding that unless the employee-numerosity requirement is met, federal-court subject-matter jurisdiction does not exist.

Held: Title VII's numerical threshold does not circumscribe federal-court subject-matter jurisdiction. Instead, the employee-numerosity requirement relates to the substantive adequacy of Arbaugh's Title VII claim, and therefore could not be raised defensively late in the lawsuit, i. e., after Y&H had failed to assert the objection prior to the close of trial on the merits. The basic statutory grants of federal-court subject-matter jurisdiction are contained in 28 U.S.C. § 1331, which provides for "[f]ederal-question" jurisdiction, and § 1332, which provides for "[d]iversity of citizenship" jurisdiction. A plaintiff properly invokes § 1331 jurisdiction when she pleads a colorable claim "arising under" the FederalConstitution or laws. See Bell v. Hood, 327 U.S. 678, 681-685. She invokes § 1332 jurisdiction when she presents a claim between parties of diverse citizenship that exceeds the required jurisdictional amount, currently $75,000. See § 1332(a). Arbaugh invoked federal-question jurisdiction under § 1331, but her case "aris[es]" under a federal law, Title VII, that specifies, as a prerequisite to its application, the existence of a particular fact, i. e., 15 or more employees. The Court resolves the question whether that fact is "jurisdictional" or relates to the "merits" of a Title VII claim mindful of the consequences of typing the 15-employee threshold a determinant of subject-matter jurisdiction, rather than an element of Arbaugh's claim for relief. First, "subject-matter jurisdiction, because it involves a court's power to hear a case, can never be forfeited or waived." United States v. Cotton, 535 U.S. 625, 630. Moreover, courts, including this Court, have an independent obligation to determine whether subject-matter jurisdiction exists, even in the absence of a challenge from any party. Ruhrgas AG v. Marathon Oil Co., 526 U.S. 574, 583. Nothing in Title VII's text indicates that Congress intended courts, on their own motion, to assure that the employee-numerosity requirement is met. Second, in some instances, if subject-matter jurisdiction turns on contested facts, the trial judge may be authorized to review the evidence and resolve the dispute on her own. If satisfaction of an essential element of a claim is at issue, however, the jury is the proper trier of contested facts. Reeves v. Sanderson Plumbing

[546 U.S. 502]

Products, Inc., 530 U.S. 133, 150-151. Third, when a federal court concludes that it lacks subject-matter jurisdiction, the complaint must be dismissed in its entirety. Thus, the trial court below dismissed, along with the Title VII claim, pendent state-law claims fully tried by a jury and determined on the merits. In contrast, when a court grants a motion to dismiss for failure to state a federal claim, the court generally retains discretion to exercise supplemental jurisdiction, pursuant to § 1367, over pendent state-law claims.

While Congress could make the employee-numerosity requirement "jurisdictional" if it so chose, neither § 1331 nor Title VII's jurisdictional provision, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-5(f)(3), specifies any threshold ingredient akin to 28 U.S.C. § 1332's monetary floor. Instead, the 15-employee threshold appears in a separate provision that "does not speak in jurisdictional terms or refer in any way to the jurisdiction of the district courts." Zipes v. Trans World Airlines, Inc., 455 U.S. 385, 394. Given the unfairness and waste of judicial resources entailed in tying the employee-numerosity requirement to subject-matter jurisdiction, the sounder course is to refrain from constricting § 1331 or § 2000e-5(f)(3), and to leave the ball in Congress' court. If the Legislature clearly states that a threshold limitation on a statute's scope shall count as jurisdictional, then courts and litigants will be duly instructed and will not be left to wrestle with the issue. But when Congress does not rank a statutory limitation on coverage as jurisdictional, courts should treat the restriction as nonjurisdictional in character. Applying that readily administrable bright line here yields the holding that Title VII's 15-employee threshold is an element of a plaintiff's claim for relief, not a jurisdictional issue. Pp. 510-516.

380 F.3d 219, reversed and remanded.

GINSBURG, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which all other Members joined, except ALITO, J., who took no part in the consideration or decision of the case.


Jeffrey A. Schwartz argued the cause for petitioner. With him on the briefs was Eric Schnapper.

Daryl Joseffer argued the cause for the United States as amicus curiae urging reversal. With him on the brief were Solicitor General Clement, Acting Assistant Attorney General Schlozman, Dennis J. Dimsey, Linda F. Thome, Eric S. Dreiband, Carolyn L. Wheeler, and Jennifer S. Goldstein.

[546 U.S. 503]

Brett J. Prendergast argued the cause and filed a brief for respondent.*

JUSTICE GINSBURG delivered the opinion of the Court.

This case concerns the distinction between two sometimes confused or conflated concepts: federal-court "subject-matter" jurisdiction over a controversy; and the essential ingredients of a federal claim for relief. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 makes it unlawful "for an employer ... to discriminate," inter alia, on the basis of sex. 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-2(a)(1). The Act's jurisdictional provision empowers federal courts to adjudicate civil actions "brought under" Title VII. § 2000e-5(f)(3). Covering a broader field, the Judicial Code gives federal courts subject-matter jurisdiction over all civil actions "arising under" the laws of the United States. 28 U.S.C. § 1331. Title VII actions fit that description. In a provision defining 13 terms used in Title VII, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e, Congress limited the definition of "employer" to include only those having "fifteen or more employees," § 2000e(b). The question here presented is whether the numerical qualification contained in Title VII's definition of "employer" affects federal-court subject-matter jurisdiction or, instead, delineates a substantive ingredient of a Title VII claim for relief.

The question arises in this context. Jenifer Arbaugh, plaintiff below, petitioner here, brought a Title VII action in federal court against her former employer, defendant-respondent Y & H Corporation (hereinafter Y&H), charging sexual harassment. The case was tried to a jury, which returned a verdict for Arbaugh in the total amount of $40,000. Two weeks after the trial court entered judgment on the jury verdict, Y&H moved to dismiss the entire action for want of federal subject-matter jurisdiction. For the first time in the litigation, Y&H asserted that it had fewer than 15 employees on its payroll and therefore was not amenable to suit under Title VII.

Although recognizing that it was "unfair and a waste of judicial...

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