Civil and Human Rights

Fort Bend County v. Davis

In Fort Bend County v. Davis, the Supreme Court decided whether Title VII’s exhaustion requirement is jurisdictional.

In Brief

The Supreme Court will consider whether Title VII’s exhaustion requirement is a jurisdictional prerequisite to suit, or whether it is a waivable claim processing rule.
The Court should reaffirm that a requirement is jurisdictional only where Congress has “clearly state[d]” that it should be treated as jurisdictional.
Congress has not suggested—let alone clearly stated—either in the text or structure of Title VII that its exhaustion requirement is jurisdictional.

Case Summary

In 2012, respondent Lois M. Davis sued petitioner Fort Bend County under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits employers from discriminating on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.  Davis alleged that the petitioner had engaged in religious and sex-based discrimination and retaliation.  After five years of litigation, including a full round of appeals, petitioner for the first time argued that Davis’s claim of religious discrimination was barred because she failed to exhaust her administrative remedies before the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).  The Fifth Circuit held that petitioner had forfeited this claim by failing to raise it at the start of litigation.  Fort Bend County then filed a writ of certiorari with the Supreme Court, arguing that Title VII’s exhaustion requirement– which requires plaintiffs to exhaust claims of employment discrimination with the EEOC before filing suit in federal court–is a jurisdictional prerequisite to the suit that cannot be forfeited.  In early 2019, the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case, and CAC filed an amicus curiae brief on behalf of Davis.

Our brief makes two points.  First, we explain that the Court has adopted a clear-statement rule to determine whether statutory requirements are jurisdictional: Congress must clearly state that a prerequisite is jurisdictional for it to be treated as such.  This rule makes sense because treating a prerequisite as jurisdictional alters the normal operation of the courts.  Parties cannot waive or forfeit jurisdictional arguments, and can therefore raise them at any time.  Furthermore, courts are required to assess jurisdictional requirements on their own even if the parties fail to argue them.  Given these dramatic consequences that result when a requirement is deemed jurisdictional, the Court has applied a bright line test that requires Congress to clearly state that a particular requirement is jurisdictional.  And the Court has repeatedly applied that standard to statutory prerequisites in the Title VII context and elsewhere, holding that these requirements are not jurisdictional unless Congress has clearly stated that they are or there has been a long tradition of treating them as such.

Second, our brief argues that Congress has not suggested—let alone clearly stated—that Title VII’s exhaustion requirement is jurisdictional.  The text of Title VII does not indicate that the exhaustion requirement is jurisdictional.  Moreover, the requirement appears in an entirely different subsection than Title VII’s jurisdictional provision, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-5(f)(3), or 28 U.S.C. § 1331, which grants federal courts subject-matter jurisdiction over federal questions. Finally, there is no long-standing tradition of treating the Title VII exhaustion requirement as jurisdictional; to the contrary, this Court has repeatedly implied that the requirement is not jurisdictional, and eight courts of appeals have explicitly held as much.

In a unanimous decision, the Court agreed, holding that Title VII’s exhaustion rule is not jurisdictional. Echoing our brief, the court noted that Title VII’s exhaustion requirement is located in a provision separate from Title VII’s jurisdictional provisions. The Court also explained that the exhaustion requirement is more similar to other claim-processing rules and preconditions to relief that the Court has already ranked as nonjurisdictional. For these reasons, the Court held that “Title VII’s [exhaustion] requirement is a processing rule, albeit a mandatory one, not a jurisdictional prescription delineating the adjudicatory authority of courts.”

Case Timeline

  • April 3, 2019

    CAC files amicus brief

    U.S. Sup. Ct. Amicus Brief
  • April 22, 2019

    The Supreme Court hears oral arguments

  • June 3, 2019

    The Supreme Court issues its decision