Procedure Matters: Fourth Circuit Holds 180-Day Waiting Period for Federal Employees to File Suit is Not Jurisdictional

By Zachary Anstett

In a published opinion on January 8, 2019, the Fourth Circuit concluded that Section 2000e-16(c), which applies to federal government workers, is not a jurisdictional requirement. The 180-day waiting period is instead a prudential prerequisite to suit. Because of the Court’s holding, employers will need to use Rule 12(b)(6) when claiming that the plaintiff failed to wait the required 180 days.

This case, Stewart v. Iancu, 17-1815, 2019 WL 122868 (4th Cir. Jan. 8, 2019), involved a federal employee alleging, among other things, disability discrimination, retaliation, and hostile work environment under the Rehabilitation Act and Title VII. The panel, consisting of Chief Judge Gregory and Judges Wynn and Motz, reversed the District Court and remanded for further proceedings.


The plaintiff (“Stewart”) worked for the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (“PTO”) and suffers from bulging discs in his lower back and radiculopathy. Stewart filed a request through HR for a few accommodations including a standing desk, flexible work schedule, and a special keyboard. Some of his requests were granted while others were denied. His employer, the PTO, denied one of his requests as placing an undue burden on management.

Stewart filed his claims with the EEOC on July 14, 2015 and amended his complaint eight times. On February 29, 2016, which is more than 180-days after the initial complaint, but less than 180-days after Stewart’s most recent amendment, Stewart filed a pro se civil action in the District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia. Even though the PTO filed its motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6), the District Court dismissed Stewart’s complaint under Rule 12(b)(1) for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction. The District Court noted that the administrative exhaustion requirements are jurisdictional and Stewart failed to exhaust his administrative remedies thereby denying the District Court of subject-matter jurisdiction.

180-Day Requirement is Not Jurisdictional

To determine whether the 180-day requirement was jurisdictional, the panel stated that “[o]nly if the statutory text ‘plainly show[s] that Congress imbued a procedural bar with jurisdictional consequences’ should a court treat a rule as jurisdictional.” Specifically, the courts are to look at three factors: 1) the statutory text; 2) the placement of the rule; and 3) the legislative context.

Concluding that the 180-day waiting period for federal employees is not jurisdictional, the Fourth Circuit relied on the facts that “Congress has done nothing to ‘tag’ [the waiting period] as jurisdictional,” and that the statutory requirements were not located in Title VII’s jurisdictional subsection. In other words, because the 180-day requirement’s “placement within Title VII is distinct from those provisions pertaining to jurisdiction . . . [this] further supports a conclusion that the 180-day waiting period is not a jurisdictional requirement but rather a ‘prudential prerequisite to suit.’”

District Court Erred in Dismissing Complaint

Beginning with the plain language of the statute, the Fourth Circuit analyzed Section 2000e-16(c)’s use of the phrase “from the filing of the initial charge with the department, agency, or unit.” The Court determined that “[u]nlike most administrative exhaustion requirements premised on agency action, after which injured parties may ‘seek review of an adverse decision and obtain a remedy’ if warranted, the 180-day waiting period is satisfied by agency inaction.” (Emphasis in original). Looking at the ordinary meaning of the word “initial” the panel concluded that the statute “requires that the 180-day waiting period begin upon the filing of the first, original charge.”

Employers should be aware that jurisdictional defects can be raised at any time by the parties or the court, whether during trial or post-judgment. The Fourth Circuit has now solidified that the 180-day waiting period for federal employees is not jurisdictional. This means that Rule 12(b)(6) is the best avenue for pursing dismissal based upon a 180-day waiting period defect. Furthermore, this case sends a clear message that once an employee files an administrative charge of discrimination, the 180-day clock begins to tick for that claim and all other claims that are like or related. Because 180 days had passed since the original administrative filing, and since the 180-day requirement is not a jurisdictional defect, but rather a prerequisite to suit, the District Court should have decided this case under Rule 12(b)(6) and should not have dismissed Stewart’s complaint.