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Stewart v. Iancu

United States Court of Appeals, Fourth Circuit

January 8, 2019

FENYANG AJAMU STEWART, Plaintiff - Appellant,
v.
ANDREI IANCU, Defendant-Appellee.

          Argued: October 30, 2018

          Appeal from the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, at Alexandria. Leonie M. Brinkema, District Judge. (1:16-cv-00213-LMB-JFA)

         ARGUED:

          Kevin Spencer Elliker, HUNTON ANDREWS KURTH LLP, Richmond, Virginia, for Appellant.

          Dennis Carl Barghaan, Jr., OFFICE OF THE UNITED STATES ATTORNEY, Alexandria, Virginia, for Appellee.

         ON BRIEF:

          G. Zachary Terwilliger, United States Attorney, OFFICE OF THE UNITED STATES ATTORNEY, Alexandria, Virginia, for Appellee.

          Before GREGORY, Chief Judge, MOTZ and WYNN, Circuit Judges.

          WYNN, CIRCUIT JUDGE.

         This appeal arises from the district court's determination that Fenyang Ajamu Stewart ("Stewart") is required to wait longer than 180 days to commence a civil action under Title VII and the Rehabilitation Act after amending his initial administrative complaint before the relevant agency. But the text of Title VII, as well as the legislative context and purpose, plainly states that a claimant may commence a civil action 180 days from "the filing of the initial charge." 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-16(c) (emphasis added). We, therefore, reverse the district court and remand for further proceedings.

         I.

         Stewart worked as a patent examiner for the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office ("PTO"). He suffers from bulging discs in his lower back and radiculopathy, resulting from compression of his sciatic nerve, as well as post- and continuous-traumatic stress disorder. Because of these medical conditions, Stewart filed a reasonable accommodation request with the PTO in April 2014. Specifically, he requested that he not be required to (1) come into work at a specified, mandatory time; (2) report his work schedule to his supervisor; and (3) schedule his meetings before 12:00 p.m., as his pain medications caused morning grogginess. In addition, Stewart requested an ergonomic chair and keyboard, a standing desk, and a foot stool.

         On September 19, 2014, the PTO granted Stewart's requests for the keyboard, standing desk, and foot stool. Stewart had already received an ergonomic chair by that point. Regarding his work schedule, the PTO determined that Stewart was already on the Increased Flexitime Program work schedule, which permitted him sufficient flexibility to "work around any difficulties" and that Stewart's supervisor, when possible, would schedule meetings specifically designed for Stewart after 12:00 pm. However, the PTO denied Stewart's request not to report his work schedule to his supervisor, as such a request would unduly burden his supervisor and the agency's ability to oversee and administer Stewart's work.

         Stewart filed a formal complaint with the PTO's Office of Equal Employment Opportunity and Diversity on July 14, 2015, challenging the PTO's denial of his request for accommodations, asserting a hostile work environment and discrimination, and alleging various claims of retaliation. Stewart amended this administrative complaint eight times. After each of these amendments, the PTO's Office of Equal Employment Opportunity and Diversity responded with a notice advising Stewart that (1) he may amend his formal complaint at any time before the investigation is complete, and any new claims "must be like or related to the claims raised" in the original complaint; and (2) he may "file a civil action in an appropriate United States District Court at any time after 180 days have passed from the date [he] filed [his] original complaint. 29 C.F.R. § 1614.407(b)." J.A. 114.

         On February 29, 2016-more than 180 days after the filing of his original administrative complaint, but less than 180 days after the filing of several of the amendments-Stewart filed pro se a civil action in the District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, alleging numerous violations of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, 29 U.S.C. § 701 et seq., and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e et seq. Stewart's claims rested on the PTO's alleged failure to accommodate his disabilities; a hostile work environment; reprisal for participating in protected Equal Employment Opportunity activity; disparate treatment discrimination on the basis of disability and failure to accommodate; and retaliation for requesting reasonable accommodation. Stewart later amended the complaint in April 2016, adding two counts.

         The PTO filed a motion to dismiss, arguing that Stewart's suit was premature under both 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-16(c) and 29 C.F.R. § 1614.407(b) because he had not exhausted his administrative remedies. According to the PTO, Stewart was required to wait to file a civil action until the conclusion of the agency's investigation period. That investigation period is extended when employees amend their administrative complaint to the earlier of 180 days after the last amendment or 360 days after the filing of the initial complaint. 29 C.F.R. §§ 1614.106(e)(2); 1614.108(f).

         On March 17, 2017, the district court dismissed Stewart's case without prejudice for lack of subject matter jurisdiction. The district court held that Stewart had failed to exhaust his administrative remedies because under Section 1614.407(b), he was required to wait until July 8, 2016, the earlier of 180 days after Stewart's last amendment or 360 days after the filing of his initial complaint, to file a civil action in federal court. Stewart timely appealed the district court's decision.

         II.

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