At SCOTUS: Title VII Exhaustion: Jurisdictional? Waivable?

At SCOTUS: Title VII Exhaustion: Jurisdictional? Waivable?

Part of a series - Employment Law Case of the Week - by Ross Runkel.

The US Supreme Court has granted certiorari to decide whether Title VII’s administrative exhaustion requirement is a jurisdictional prerequisite to suit, as three Circuits have held, or a waivable claim processing rule, as eight Circuits have held. Title VII requires plaintiffs to exhaust claims of employment discrimination with the EEOC before filing suit in federal court. Fort Bend County v. Davis (US Supreme Ct cert granted 01/11/2019) [Order].

The 4th, 9th, and 11th Circuits hold that exhaustion is jurisdictional, so courts lack subject matter jurisdiction over claims that were never presented to the EEOC. The 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 5th, 6th, 7th, 10th, and DC Circuits treat failure to exhaust as a claim processing rule that is subject to waiver, forfeiture, and other equitable defenses. The Department of Justice is on record as describing Title VII’s exhaustion requirement as jurisdictional, and the EEOC has taken the position that it is not jurisdictional.

The Court will review the 5th Circuit's judgment in Davis v. Fort Bend County (5th Cir 06/20/2018) [PDF], which held that the defendant forfeited its exhaustion argument by not raising it in a timely manner before the district court.

No ministerial exception for Catholic grade school teacher

No ministerial exception for Catholic grade school teacher.

Part of a series - Employment Law Case of the Week - by Ross Runkel.

Is a fifth grade teacher at a Catholic school a “minister” for purposes of the ministerial exception? Court says “No” 2-1.

Kristen Biel was fired from her fifth grade teaching position at a Catholic school after she told her employer that she had breast cancer and would need to miss work to undergo chemotherapy. The trial court granted summary judgment to the employer on the ground that the 1st amendment's ministerial exception barred her claim under the Americans with Disabilities Act. The 9th Circuit reversed, 2-1. Biel v. St. James School (9th Cir 12/17/2018) [PDF]

The court applied the analysis in Hosanna-Tabor v. EEOC to conclude that, under the totality of the circumstances, Biel did not qualify as a "minister" for purposes of the ministerial exception.

  1. The school did not hold Biel out as a minister by suggesting to its community that she had special expertise in Church doctrine, values, or pedagogy beyond that of any practicing Catholic.

  2. Biel's title "Grade 5 Teacher" did not reflect any religious meaning. There was no religious component to her liberal studies degree or teaching credential, and the school had no religious requirements for her position.

  3. Nothing in the record indicates that Biel considered herself a minister or presented herself as one to the community. She described herself as a teacher and claimed no benefits available only to ministers.

  4. Biel taught lessons on the Catholic faith four days a week. She also incorporated religious themes and symbols into her overall classroom environment and curriculum, as the school required.

The DISSENT argued that Biel was "entrusted with teaching and conveying the tenets of the faith to the next generation." The substance reflected in her title and the important religious functions she performed outweigh her formal title and whether she held herself out as a minister.

ADEA applies to local governments regardless of size

US Supreme Court: ADEA applies to local governments regardless of size.

Part of a series - Employment Law Case of the Week - by Ross Runkel.

In a unanimous decision, the US Supreme Court holds that the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) applies to local political subdivisions regardless of their size. This is rejection of the argument that the ADEA applies only when a political subdivisions has 20 or more employees. Mount Lemmon Fire Dist v. Guido (US Supreme Ct 11/06/2018) [PDF]

Following Congressional amendments in 1974, the ADEA has two key sentences in its definitions: (a) "The term ‘employer' means a person engaged in an industry affecting commerce who has twenty or more employees … ." (b) "The term also means (1) any agent of such a person, and (2) a State or political subdivision of a State … ."

The Court said, "We hold … that §630(b)'s two-sentence delineation, and the expression 'also means' at the start of the second sentence, combine to establish separate categories: persons engaged in an industry affecting commerce with 20 or more employees; and States or political subdivisions with no attendant numerosity limitation."

The Court stressed the use of the phrase "also means," which appears dozens of times in the US Code, and typically carries an additive – rather than clarifying – meaning. Also, the second sentence in §630(b) pairs political subdivisions with agents, a discrete category that carries no numerical limitation. Although Title VII applies to local governments only if they meet a numerosity specification, that is a consequence of the different language Congress chose to employ.

The Supreme Court decision affirmed the 9th Circuit, and rejected contrary interpretations by the 6th, 7th, 8th, and 10th Circuits.