Fourth Circuit: Amendments to EEO Complaint Do Not Reset Timeline for Judicial Suit
After a federal district court ruled that a Patent and Trademark Office employee’s amendment to his initial EEO complaint reset the 180-day timeline for the accrual of the employee’s right to file a judicial suit, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed and remanded the district court ruling, finding that the plain language of Title VII contemplates amendments to the initial complaint.
Before reaching whether the district court erred in dismissing the employee’s discrimination suit, the appeals court analyzed the “threshold question” of whether Title VII’s 180-day waiting period is a jurisdictional bar, which was a question of first impression in the Fourth Circuit. The district court’s dismissal of the suit was for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction, and the district court decision stated that the “administrative exhaustion requirements for the Rehabilitation Act and Title VII claims are jurisdictional.” The appeals court disagreed that the 180-day waiting period is jurisdictional, citing recent Supreme Court decisions that cautioned courts not to “confuse” or “conflate” subject-matter jurisdiction with the requirement that a plaintiff include all of the “essential ingredients of a federal claim for relief.” According to the appeals court, the Supreme Court has applied this distinction to differentiate between non-jurisdictional “claim-processing” rules and jurisdictional rules, holding that Congress must explicitly “tag” a procedural bar as jurisdictional.
The appeals court found that the 180-day waiting period was a statutory prerequisite to filing suit, rather than functioning as a jurisdictional bar to such suit that could be raised at any time by the parties or sua sponte by the courts, even post-judgment. Therefore, the appeals court held that the district court erred by dismissing the case under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(1), and should have adjudicated the case under FRCP 12(b)(6).
After determining that the 180-day waiting period was not jurisdictional, the appeals court turned to the question of whether the 180-day waiting period is reset with an amendment, and analyzed the issue as it would the granting of a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim under FRCP 12(b)(6).
The appeals court explained that Section 2000e-16(c) of Title VII “permits aggrieved federal employees to file a civil action 180 days ‘from the filing of the initial charge with the department, agency, or unit’ if the agency has fail[ed] to take final action on his complaint.” Because the statute refers to the “initial” charge, the appeals court calculated the 180-day waiting period beginning on the date of the employee’s “initial” formal administrative complaint. Finding that the modifier “initial” implicitly allowed for the possibility of subsequent amendments, the appeals court held that amendments to the initial complaint (and the agency’s extended investigation window for amendments) operate independently of the 180-day waiting period. The appeals court held that the 180-day waiting period gave “great weight to the complainant’s interest in obtaining speedy resolution of the complaint” and ensured “ready access to the courts.”
For the above stated reasons, the appeals court held on January 8, 2019, that “Section 2000e-16(c)’s 180-day waiting period for filing a civil action, absent agency final action, commences with the filing of the initial administrative complaint, regardless of subsequent amendments to that complaint.”
Read the full case: Stewart v. Iancu.
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Posted in Case Law Update