In Scott v. Gino Morena Enterprises, the Ninth Circuit clarifies that the statute of limitations period for filing a Title VII suit commences after the EEOC issues a right-to-sue notice.

Plaintiff Scott sued her employer in federal court, alleging sexual harassment and retaliation at a barbershop at Camp Pendleton where she worked. She brought suit under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Under Title VII, a plaintiff must exhaust her administrative remedies by filing a charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (the “EEOC”) or a qualifying state agency (such as DFEH) and receiving a right-to-sue notice. After exhausting administrative remedies, a plaintiff has 90 days to file a civil action.

Scott’s employer contended that she became eligible to receive a right-to-sue notice from the EEOC 180 days after the filed her charge, and that the 90 day clock started ticking 180 days after Scott filed a charge with the EEOC. Scott contended the 90 day clock didn’t start ticking until she actually received her right-to-sue notice. The court had granted summary judgment for Scott’s employer on the basis that her claims were time-barred as she had waited more than 90 days after she became eligible to receive a right-to-sue notice from the EEOC. Scott appealed the ruling, and the Ninth Circuit reversed (in part) the summary judgment ruling, holding that the 90 day clock doesn’t begin until the right-to-sue notice is received.

One concern about starting the clock upon receipt of the EEOC notice (as opposed to 180 days after filing the charge) is that the employer shouldn’t have to wait years to find out if litigation will begin. Evidence can be lost as witnesses’ memories may fade or they may move away. While an employee can rely on this decision in waiting to sue, she can’t wait forever. If appropriate, an employer can still assert arguments about unreasonable delay (doctrine of laches).