Employee Information

Time Limits and Complaint-Filing Procedures



Equal employment opportunity laws impose time limits that must be met. If the prescribed time limits are not met, cases may be dismissed by government agencies, and the courts. The information presented here describes some, but not all, of the time limits. Other non-discrimination employment laws that may be applicable to your situation impose additional time limits. To obtain more information about time limits and complaint procedures, contact other sources of information, including government agencies, and private attorneys.

In California and Oregon, which have state fair employment practices ("FEP") agencies approved by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), complaints of employment discrimination must usually be filed in writing with the EEOC within 300 days of the alleged discrimination (42 USC 2000e-5(e)). In some states that do not have EEOC-approved state or local government fair employment practices agencies, a 180-day time limit may apply to filing complaints with the EEOC. Call your local EEOC office, and the office of your state fair employment practices agency, to learn the complaint-filing deadlines and procedures. The EEOC and state fair employment practices agencies usually "dual-file" your discrimination complaint so that you meet the complaint filing requirements under the federal and state discrimination laws.

A complaint of employment discrimination usually has to be filed with the EEOC, and a Notice of Right to Sue issued by the EEOC, before litigation is commenced in court. This is not true for litigation under the federal Equal Pay Act which may be filed directly in court within two years of the alleged discrimination (or three years for a "willful" violation)(29 USC 216(c), 255(a)), and litigation under post-Civil War civil rights statutes like 42 USC Sections 1981 and 1983, which may be filed within the statute of limitations for personal injury actions in the state where the case is filed. For example, the time limit for personal injury actions is two years in California (effective 1-1-03, one year before that), and two years in Oregon. An employment discrimination lawsuit may be filed under several laws, and theories of law, and the time limits and procedural requirements must be met for each law.

If the EEOC declines to take a discrimination complaint, a complainant may attempt to file the complaint by submitting a signed letter to the EEOC within the prescribed time period, stating the name and address of the complainant and the employer, employment agency, or labor organization; the approximate number of workers employed by the employer; the date of the alleged discrimination; the basis of the alleged discrimination (e.g., race, national origin, sex, age, religion, disability, retaliation); and, a description of the alleged discriminatory actions (42 USC 2000-e-5(b); 29 CFR 1601.9 and 1601.12). The EEOC may still dismiss the complaint, but it should do so by issuing a Notice of Right to Sue, which allows the complainant to file suit in Federal District Court. If the EEOC issues a Notice of Right to Sue on a complaint, that action usually ends the EEOC's administrative processing of the complaint, and the complainant has only 90 days to file the lawsuit in Federal District Court (29 CFR 1601.28(e)).

You may have the option of filing a discrimination complaint with the state or local government fair employment practices agency in your area. The time limits for filing these discrimination complaints vary. Both California and Oregon have one-year charge-filing periods from the date of the alleged discrimination. Check with the state and local government agencies in your area to learn their requirements. State fair employment practices agencies also issue Notices of Right to Sue in state court. The time limit for filing those lawsuits is indicated in the notice of right to sue. For example, in California a discrimination lawsuit under the California Fair Employment and Housing Act must be filed within one year from the date of the notice of right to sue. There are appellate court decisions that "toll" or extend the period to file suit under state employment discrimination laws for the period of time that the EEOC was actively processing the administrative discrimination complaint. Different time limits apply to other legal causes of action. For example, effective January 1, 2003, in California an action for tortious termination in violation of public policy is governed by the two-year statute of limitations in CCP Section 335 (a one-year limit probably applies before 1-1-03). A one-year statute of limitations applies to employment-related tort actions for libel, slander, and false improsonment (CCP Section 340). You should consult with an attorney to determine how the time limits apply to your situation.

Attorney referral services may be provided by government agencies, bar associations, and other organizations. The EEOC field offices maintain attorney referral lists that are available to the public. You may obtain the list by contacting your local EEOC office and asking for the "Attorney Referral List" for your area. If a complainant is unable to find an attorney who will file suit within the federal 90-day period, or state law filing period, (s)he may attempt to file suit in court without an attorney, and ask the court to appoint an attorney. Some courts may provide limited assistance to unrepresented complainants. For example, the Office of the Clerk of the Federal District Court for the Northern District of California will provide a package of forms to assist a complainant to file suit without an attorney. However, note that it is difficult to pursue litigation without an attorney, and the court may be unable to appoint an attorney for you. The court complaint is a very important document because it states the alleged violations of law, and identifies the laws and theories of law that the case is brought under. It is an important decision whether you file suit in federal or state court, since different court procedures apply, and one forum may offer advantages over the other. For example, a smaller jury is usually used in federal court, but a unanimous jury verdict is required. Many plaintiff's attorneys think that it is advantageous for complainants to file suit in state court instead of federal court. Since the laws and procedures are so complex, you should make every effort to find an attorney to represent you in litigation. You should consult with an attorney to discuss litigation.

Civilian employees of the federal government, and applicants for federal employment, must follow different discrimination complaint filing time limits and administrative procedures. They must first discuss their discrimination complaints with "equal employment opportunity counselors" of the employing agency within 45 days of the alleged discrimination before filing an administrative discrimination complaint with the agency. Note the short 45 day limit for commencing the eeo counseling. The eeo counselors should inform the employees of additional procedural time limits that they must meet. Contact the eeo office of your agency for additional information.

The time limits to file discrimination complaints may be extended in some circumstances, such as using the "continuing violation" theory that says related but untimely discriminatory events may be may be considered. If you have questions about the timeliness of a discrimination complaint, you should seek legal advice from an attorney.

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