“Administrative Exhaustion” Claim Waived by Employer in Sexual Harassment Lawsuit, According to Supreme Court

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 requires employees and job applicants to follow a rather lengthy administrative process before filing a lawsuit. New York City employment discrimination attorneys have multiple options when deciding how to approach claims like sexual harassment. Each statute defines procedures that lawyers and their clients must follow. A decision handed down by the U.S. Supreme Court in June 2019, Fort Bend County v. Davis, addresses a defense known as “administrative exhaustion.” Employers can raise this defense when a plaintiff did not follow the administrative process required by federal law. It can result in dismissal of a case. The Davis decision, however, holds that an employer waives the defense if they do not raise it soon enough.

Before an employee or former employee may file a lawsuit under Title VII in federal court, they must file a charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). The deadline to file a charge is 180 days after the alleged unlawful act. 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-5(e)(1). The EEOC investigates the claim, and may attempt to reach a “conciliation agreement” with the employer. Id. at § 2000e-5(f)(1). It can decide to file suit against the employer on behalf of the complainant and others with similar claims.

A complainant only gains the right to file a lawsuit if, after 180 days, the EEOC has not initiated a lawsuit. The complainant can request a notice, known as a “right to sue” letter, that gives them ninety days to file suit. 29 C.F.R. § 1601.28. If an individual files a Title VII lawsuit before they have received a right-to-sue letter, the defendant can move to dismiss the lawsuit on the ground that the plaintiff did not exhaust all of their administrative remedies. Hence, it is known as the administrative exhaustion defense.

The Davis case began with an EEOC charge alleging sexual harassment and retaliation. The complainant claimed that a supervisor sexually harassed her, and that his successor retaliated against her for reporting the harassment. While the EEOC was processing the charge, the employer fired her, purportedly for missing work. She claimed that the same supervisor who allegedly retaliated against her refused to allow her an accommodation for a church-related event on a Sunday, and that she was fired when she attended that event instead of coming to work.

The complainant hand-wrote “religion” on some of her EEOC paperwork. Several months later, the EEOC issued a right-to-sue letter. She filed suit for retaliation and religious discrimination. The defendant sought to dismiss both claims, but a 2014 appellate court ruling allowed the religious discrimination claim to proceed. The defendant unsuccessfully appealed that decision to the Supreme Court. Only then did it raise the issue of administrative exhaustion.

The defendant claimed that the right-to-sue letter did not cover the religious discrimination claim, since it was not part of her original charge. It argued that the requirement of a right-to-sue letter is “jurisdictional,” meaning that it is an essential, unwaivable part of the legal process. The Supreme Court disagreed, largely because the defendant waited years to bring it up. It held that the right-to-sue letter is a “prudential prerequisite to suit,” not a jurisdictional requirement.

Phillips & Associates’ New York City employment discrimination attorneys handle EEOC representation matters, helping workers assert their rights under city, state, and federal law. Please contact us today online or at (212) 248-7431 to schedule a free and confidential consultation with a member of our team.

Contact Information