Jottings By An Employer's Lawyer

Thursday, February 23, 2006

Supreme Court - 15 Employee Requirement of Title VII Is Not Jurisdictional

In a case that is of more importance to the technicalities of the legal process than to employment law, the Supreme Court yesterday held that the requirement of 15 employees for coverage of Title VII is an element of the plaintiff's case, not a jurisdictional prerequisite. The difference -- if it is jurisdictional it can never be waived and can be raised at any time. Which is exactly what happened in Arbaugh v. Y & H Corp. dba The Moonlight Cafe (S. Ct. 2/22/06) [pdf].

After a jury awarded Arbaugh $40,000 on her sexual harassment claim, the defendant for the first time raised the issue of whether it had 15 employees. Furthermore, it argued that if it did not, the court did not have jurisdiction to hear the case and it should be dismissed. After begrudgingly making a determination that delivery drivers and the owners and their spouses should not be counted as employees, the trial court felt compelled to dismiss the case for want of jurisdictionn. The 5th Circuit, following its established precedent, agreed.

The Supreme Court took the case to decide the issue, one which it somewhat sheepishly admitted it might have contributed to by its lack of precision in using the term jurisdiction. Justice Ginsburg's opinion notes that like other courts, the Supreme Court has "sometimes been profligate in its use of the term." In deciding the difference between subject matter jurisdiction versus ingredient-of-claim, "this Court and others have been less than meticulous." Even some of its own decisions might fall into the category of what Justice Ginsburg called "drive-by jurisdictional rulings" where a court uses the term without careful explication of what is meant.

Having made its point (and its mea culpa), the Court turned to the merits and finds that under Title VII the 15 employee limit is not jurisdictional. Extending the reach of the case to other future cases, it instructs that if Congress does not clearly make a "statutory limitation" jurisdictional, the courts should not do.

All in all a tidy summary of federal courts law and the principle that federal courts are courts of limited jurisdiction --- but not an employment law blockbuster. That could come later this term when the Court decides what is an "adverse employment action." See, Supreme Court to Decide Major Issue - What is an Adverse Employment Action?

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