Arbaugh v. Y & H Corp.

PETITIONER: Jenifer Arbaugh
RESPONDENT: Y & H Corporation, dba The Moonlight Cafe
LOCATION: U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit

DOCKET NO.: 04-944
DECIDED BY: Roberts Court (2006-2009)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit

CITATION: 546 US 500 (2006)
GRANTED: May 16, 2005
ARGUED: Jan 11, 2006
DECIDED: Feb 22, 2006

Brett John Prendergast - argued the cause for Respondent
Daryl Joseffer - argued the cause for Petitioner
Jeffrey A. Schwartz - argued the cause for Petitioner

Facts of the case

Jennifer Arbaugh, a waitress at the Moonlight Cafe in Louisiana, sued her employer, the Y&H Corporation, for sexual harassment under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. The federal district court jury ruled for Arbaugh. Filing a motion to dismiss, Y&H claimed it did not qualify as an employer under Title VII, because it did not employ 15 or more employees for 20 or more calendar weeks during the relevant time period. The district court then reversed the jury judgment, holding that the number of employees determines a court's subject matter jurisdiction in a Title VII suit. The Fifth Circuit affirmed.


Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act applied the prohibition of employment discrimination to employers with fifteen or more employees. Did this limit federal courts' subject matter jurisdiction, or did it only raise an issue going to the merits of a Title VII claim?

Media for Arbaugh v. Y & H Corp.

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - January 11, 2006 in Arbaugh v. Y & H Corp.

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - February 22, 2006 in Arbaugh v. Y & H Corp.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg:

Justice Ginsburg has the opinion in No. 04-944, Arbaugh versus Y & H Corporation.

This case concerns the distinction between sometimes confused concepts, federal-court subject-matter jurisdiction and the essential ingredients of a federal claim for relief.

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 makes it unlawful for an employer to discriminate, among other grounds, on the basis of sex.

To spare very small businesses from liability, Congress confined the definition of “employer” to those having 15 or more employees.

The question presented: does this numerical qualification affect federal-court subject-matter jurisdiction or instead delineate a substantive ingredient of a Title VII claim for relief?

The question arises in this context.

Jennifer Arbaugh brought a Title VII action in federal court against her former employer, Y & H Corporation, charging sexual harassment.

A jury trial yielded a $40,000 verdict for Arbaugh.

Two weeks after the trial court entered judgment on the jury’s verdict, Y & H moved to dismiss the entire action for want of subject-matter jurisdiction.

For the first time in the litigation, Y & H asserted that it had fewer than 15 employees and, therefore, was not amenable to suit under Title VII.

A trial judge found it a close question, but determined that Y & H’s employees numbered below 15.

She thought it unfair and a waste of judicial resource to dismiss a fully tried suit.

Nevertheless, she considered herself bound to do so, because she believed that the 15-or-more-employee requirement was jurisdictional.

The Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit affirmed the dismissal.

We reject the lower court’s categorization of the employee-numerosity requirement.

If Congress clearly provides that a threshold limitation on a statute scope shall count as jurisdictional, that designation will control, and courts and litigants will not be left to wrestle with the issue.

But when Congress does not write a statutory limitation on coverage as jurisdictional, courts should treat the restriction as nonjurisdictional.

Applying that bright line to this case, we hold that the threshold number of employees for application of Title VII is an element of plaintiff’s claim for relief, not a jurisdictional matter.

Title VII defines the term “employer” in a provision that does not speak in jurisdictional terms, nor does that definitional provision reference Title VII’s own jurisdictional prescription, or 28 U.S.C §1331, which gives federal courts subject-matter jurisdiction over all civil actions arising under the laws of the United States, including Title VII.

Because the employee-numerosity requirement as we hold today relates to the substantive adequacy of Arbaugh’s Title VII claim, Y & H could not raise the issue defensively after it had failed to assert any objection on this ground prior to the close of trial on the merits.

The decision reversing the 5th Circuit judgment is unanimous; Justice Alito took no part in the consideration or decision of this case.