Supreme Court Makes it Easier for Employees to Sue Employers in Court for Discrimination, Harassment and Retaliation
In a unanimous decision handed down on June 3, 2019, the United States Supreme Court ruled that an employee may sue her employer in federal or state court for discrimination without first having to file an administrative complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission when her employer failed to timely point out to the court that the employee did not properly exhaust her administrative remedies.
Facts of Fort Bend County v. Davis
In Fort Bend County v. Davis, the plaintiff complained to her employer that she was being sexually harassed. After the employer investigated her allegations, the employee who was the subject of plaintiff’s complaint resigned. Plaintiff claimed that following the accused’s resignation, her supervisor retaliated against her because he and the accused were friends. Plaintiff filed a complaint against her employer with the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission (EEOC) for sexual harassment and retaliation. Thereafter, plaintiff claims her supervisor fired her when she refused to work on a Sunday after she informed him that she had a commitment at her church. Plaintiff never properly amended her EEOC complaint to include religious discrimination.
The EEOC issued a right to sue letter on the harassment and retaliation complaint, and plaintiff, in turn, filed a complaint under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 for sexual harassment, retaliation and religious discrimination. After years of litigation, a court dismissed the claims for sexual harassment and retaliation, but the religious discrimination claim remained. The employer then sought to dismiss that claim based on plaintiff’s failure to file a claim with EEOC that specifically alleged religious discrimination. The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of the employer, but the United States Supreme Court disagreed, ruling that plaintiff could sue her employer for religious discrimination despite her failure to specifically raise her claims with the EEOC because the employer waited too long to raise this defense to plaintiff’s claim.
Employers’ Take-Aways From This Decision
The Davis decision instructs that Title VII still requires plaintiffs to exhaust administrative remedies when bringing claims for discrimination, harassment and retaliation under Title VII and, in the case of California, under the California Fair Employment and Housing Act. However, it is the employer’s burden to timely raise failure to exhaust administrative remedies as a defense to a claim by a plaintiff who has failed to comply with this requirement. If the employer fails to raise such a defense, plaintiff may, nevertheless, prosecute her claim and the employer loses the defense. However, if the employer timely raises this defense, for example, in a motion to dismiss, demurrer or answer to the employee’s complaint, it could be a complete defense.
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