Fort Bend Cnty. v. Davis

Decision Date03 June 2019
Docket NumberNo. 18-525,18-525
Citation139 S.Ct. 1843
Parties FORT BEND COUNTY, TEXAS, Petitioner v. Lois M. DAVIS
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

Randall W. Morse, Kevin T. Hedges, County Attorney's Office, Richmond, TX, Neal Kumar Katyal, Colleen E. Roh Sinzdak, Mitchell P. Reich, Michael J. West, Hogan Lovells US LLP, Washington, DC, for Petitioner.

Brian H. Fletcher, Pamela S. Karlan, Stanford Law School, Supreme Court, Litigation Clinic, Stanford, CA, Thomas C. Wright, R. Russell Hollenbeck, Raffi Melkonian, Wright Close &, Barger, LLP, Houston, TX, for Respondent.

Raffi Melkonian, Houston, TX, for Respondent.

Colleen E. Roh Sinzdak, for Petitioner.

Jonathan C. Bond for the United States as amicus curiae, by special leave of the Court, supporting the Respondent.

Justice GINSBURG delivered the opinion of the Court.

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 proscribes discrimination in employment on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. 78 Stat. 255, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e–2(a)(1). The Act also prohibits retaliation against persons who assert rights under the statute. § 2000e–3(a). As a precondition to the commencement of a Title VII action in court, a complainant must first file a charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC or Commission). § 2000e–5(e)(1), (f)(1). The question this case presents: Is Title VII's charge-filing precondition to suit a "jurisdictional" requirement that can be raised at any stage of a proceeding; or is it a procedural prescription mandatory if timely raised, but subject to forfeiture if tardily asserted? We hold that Title VII's charge-filing instruction is not jurisdictional, a term generally reserved to describe the classes of cases a court may entertain (subject-matter jurisdiction) or the persons over whom a court may exercise adjudicatory authority (personal jurisdiction). Kontrick v. Ryan , 540 U.S. 443, 455, 124 S.Ct. 906, 157 L.Ed.2d 867 (2004). 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.


Title VII directs that a "charge ... shall be filed" with the EEOC "by or on behalf of a person claiming to be aggrieved" within 180 days "after the alleged unlawful employment practice occur[s]." 42 U.S.C. § 2000e–5(b), (e)(1). For complaints concerning a practice occurring in a State or political subdivision that has a fair employment agency of its own empowered "to grant or seek relief," Title VII instructs the complainant to file her charge first with the state or local agency. § 2000e–5(c). The complainant then has 300 days following the challenged practice, or 30 days after receiving notice that state or local proceedings have ended, "whichever is earlier," to file a charge with the EEOC. § 2000e–5(e)(1). If the state or local agency has a "worksharing" agreement with the EEOC, a complainant ordinarily need not file separately with federal and state agencies. She may file her charge with one agency, and that agency will then relay the charge to the other. See 29 CFR § 1601.13 (2018) ; Brief for United States as Amicus Curiae 3.

When the EEOC receives a charge, in contrast to agencies like the National Labor Relations Board, 29 U.S.C. § 160, and the Merit Systems Protection Board, 5 U.S.C. § 1204, it does not "adjudicate [the] clai[m]," Alexander v. Gardner-Denver Co. , 415 U.S. 36, 44, 94 S.Ct. 1011, 39 L.Ed.2d 147 (1974). Instead, Title VII calls for the following course. Upon receiving a charge, the EEOC notifies the employer and investigates the allegations. 42 U.S.C. § 2000e–5(b). If the Commission finds "reasonable cause" to believe the charge is true, the Act instructs the Commission to "endeavor to eliminate [the] alleged unlawful employment practice by informal methods of conference, conciliation, and persuasion." Ibid. When informal methods do not resolve the charge, the EEOC has first option to "bring a civil action" against the employer in court. § 2000e–5(f)(1). Where the discrimination charge is lodged against state or local government employers, the Attorney General is the federal authority empowered to commence suit. Ibid.1

In the event that the EEOC determines there is "n[o] reasonable cause to believe that the charge is true," the Commission is to dismiss the charge and notify the complainant of his or her right to sue in court. 42 U.S.C. § 2000e–5(b), f(1); 29 CFR § 1601.28. Whether or not the EEOC acts on the charge, a complainant is entitled to a "right-to-sue" notice 180 days after the charge is filed. § 2000e–5(f)(1) ; 29 CFR § 1601.28. And within 90 days following such notice, the complainant may commence a civil action against the allegedly offending employer. § 2000e–5(f)(1).


Respondent Lois M. Davis worked in information technology for petitioner Fort Bend County. In 2010, she informed Fort Bend's human resources department that the director of information technology, Charles Cook, was sexually harassing her. Following an investigation by Fort Bend, Cook resigned. Davis' supervisor at Fort Bend, Kenneth Ford, was well acquainted with Cook. After Cook resigned, Davis alleges, Ford began retaliating against her for reporting Cook's sexual harassment. Ford did so, according to Davis, by, inter alia , curtailing her work responsibilities.

Seeking redress for the asserted harassment and retaliation, Davis submitted an "intake questionnaire" in February 2011, followed by a charge in March 2011.2 While her EEOC charge was pending, Davis was told to report to work on an upcoming Sunday. Davis informed her supervisor Ford that she had a commitment at church that Sunday, and she offered to arrange for another employee to replace her at work. Ford responded that if Davis did not show up for the Sunday work, she would be subject to termination. Davis went to church, not work, that Sunday. Fort Bend thereupon fired her.

Attempting to supplement the allegations in her charge, Davis handwrote "religion" on the "Employment Harms or Actions" part of her intake questionnaire, and she checked boxes for "discharge" and "reasonable accommodation" on that form. She made no change, however, in the formal charge document. A few months later, the Department of Justice notified Davis of her right to sue.

In January 2012, Davis commenced a civil action in the United States District Court for the Southern District of Texas, alleging discrimination on account of religion and retaliation for reporting sexual harassment.3 The District Court granted Fort Bend's motion for summary judgment. Davis v. Fort Bend County , 2013 WL 5157191 (SD Tex., Sept. 11, 2013). On appeal, the Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit affirmed as to Davis' retaliation claim, but reversed as to her religion-based discrimination claim. Davis v. Fort Bend County , 765 F. 3d 480 (2014). Fort Bend filed a petition for certiorari, which this Court denied. 576 U.S. ––––, 135 S.Ct. 2804, 192 L.Ed.2d 847 (2015).

When the case returned to the District Court on Davis' claim of discrimination on account of religion, Fort Bend moved to dismiss the complaint. Years into the litigation, Fort Bend asserted for the first time that the District Court lacked jurisdiction to adjudicate Davis' religion-based discrimination claim because she had not stated such a claim in her EEOC charge. Granting the motion, the District Court held that Davis had not satisfied the charge-filing requirement with respect to her claim of religion-based discrimination, and that the requirement qualified as "jurisdictional," which made it nonforfeitable. 2016 WL 4479527 (SD Tex., Aug. 24, 2016).

The Fifth Circuit reversed. 893 F. 3d 300 (2018). 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 did not raise it until after "an entire round of appeals all the way to the Supreme Court." Id. , at 307–308.

We granted Fort Bend's petition for certiorari, 586 U.S. ––––, 139 S.Ct. 915, 202 L.Ed.2d 641 (2019), to resolve a conflict among the Courts of Appeals over whether Title VII's charge-filing requirement is jurisdictional. Compare, e.g. , 893 F. 3d at 306 (case below) (charge-filing requirement is nonjurisdictional), with, e.g. , Jones v. Calvert Group, Ltd. , 551 F. 3d 297, 300 (CA4 2009) (federal courts lack subject-matter jurisdiction when the charge-filing requirement is not satisfied).


"Jurisdiction," the Court has observed, "is a word of many, too many, meanings." Kontrick , 540 U.S. at 454, 124 S.Ct. 906 (quoting Steel Co. v. Citizens for Better Environment , 523 U.S. 83, 90, 118 S.Ct. 1003, 140 L.Ed.2d 210 (1998) ).4 In recent years, the Court has undertaken "[t]o ward off profligate use of the term." Sebelius v. Auburn Regional Medical Center , 568 U.S. 145, 153, 133 S.Ct. 817, 184 L.Ed.2d 627 (2013). As earlier noted, see supra , at ––––, the word "jurisdictional" is generally reserved for prescriptions delineating the classes of cases a court may entertain (subject-matter jurisdiction) and the persons over whom the court may exercise adjudicatory authority (personal jurisdiction). Kontrick , 540 U.S. at 455, 124 S.Ct. 906.

Congress may make other prescriptions jurisdictional by incorporating them into a jurisdictional provision, as Congress has done with the amount-in-controversy requirement for federal-court diversity jurisdiction. See 28 U.S.C. § 1332(a) ("The district courts shall have original jurisdiction of all civil actions where the matter in controversy exceeds the sum or value of $ 75,000 ... and is between (1) citizens of different States ...."). In addition, the Court has stated it would treat a requirement as "jurisdictional" when "a long line of [Supreme] Cour[t] decisions left undisturbed by Congress" attached a jurisdictional label to the prescription. Union Pacific R. Co. v. Locomotive...

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