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Suing an employer; timing of the EEOC complaint process and filing a lawsuit
The 1964 Equal Employment Opportunities Act, later known as Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VII), became effective in July of 1965. In October of that year, LDF filed Brinkley v. Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Co, the first-ever Title VII case. By 1966, LDF had filed 25 cases, more than even the Justice Department. One of LDF’s most important triumphs was the Supreme Court’s unanimous 1971 decision in Griggs v. Duke Power Company. Griggs literally transformed our nation’s work places by embracing a powerful tool – now known as the “disparate impact” framework – that has helped to eradicate arbitrary and artificial barriers to equal employment opportunity for all individuals, regardless of their race. In Griggs and hundreds of other class-action suits against employers, unions, and government at all levels, LDF has helped secure jobs and employment rights for tens of thousands of individuals confronted by unfair employment practices.
Title VII requires people who believe they have experienced employment discrimination to first file a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the federal agency charged with enforcing the law. The EEOC then investigates the complaint and may resolve it informally or file a lawsuit in federal court. Alternatively, after a certain period of time, the complaining party may request a “right to sue” notice from the EEOC, authorizing them to file a lawsuit on their own in court. A plaintiff generally may not file a lawsuit under Title VII without following this procedure – if they do, the case can be dismissed.
In Fort Bend County, Texas v. Davis, Lois Davis, an employee, sued Fort Bend County, her employer, for sexual harassment, sex discrimination, religious discrimination, and retaliation after she was fired when she missed work on a Sunday due to a religious obligation. Ms. Davis alleged that her firing was retaliation for a prior report she had made, alleging that she had been sexually harassed and assaulted.
Following the requirements of Title VII, Ms. Davis had first filed a complaint with the EEOC, although her charge did not include a claim for religious discrimination. After receiving her right to sue notice, Ms. Davis filed a lawsuit in federal court. Years later, when only the allegation of religious discrimination remained, Fort Bend County argued for the first time that Ms. Davis’s case should be dismissed because her original complaint to the EEOC did not allege religious discrimination. LDF’s brief called on the Court to affirm Congress’s desire for a robust, effective private avenue for the enforcement of Title VII rights that is not unduly technical and restrictive of rights.
In a unanimous decision, the Supreme Court rejected the county’s argument. The Court explained that while the requirement to file a complaint with the EEOC is mandatory, it can be waived in certain circumstances – including in Ms. Davis’s case, when the county had failed to raise the argument in a timely manner. The decision in this case will protect victims of employment discrimination from having their federal suits thrown out when, after years of litigation, employers contend that they made a mistake in the administrative complaint filed with the EEOC.