Before an employee may sue for discrimination, harassment, or retaliation under federal law, the employee must file a charge of discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and get a right to sue letter. This is a necessary prerequisite to filing a lawsuit: If an employee files a lawsuit without first filing an administrative charge, the lawsuit will be dismissed.
Which Laws Are Covered
An employee is required to file a charge of discrimination with the EEOC before filing a lawsuit against an employer for violating Title VII (the federal law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, national origin, religion, and sex), the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, or the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act. An employee alleging harassment or retaliation under any of these laws must also first file a charge. However, an employee does not have to file a charge before bringing a lawsuit for violation of the Equal Pay Act, which requires employees to pay men and women equally for equal work.
Most states have their own laws that prohibit certain types of discrimination. Some states also require employees to file a charge of discrimination before filing a lawsuit for violation of state law; others don't.
Learn more about Your Rights in a Discrimination Case.
Time Limits for Filing a Charge
The statute of limitations for filing a charge of discrimination depends on state and local law. Generally, an employee has 180 days from the date the alleged discrimination took place to file a charge. If a state or local agency enforces a law prohibiting the same type of discrimination, the time limit is extended to 300 days. For age discrimination cases, the rule is different: The deadline is extended to 300 days only if a state agency (not a local agency) enforces a law prohibiting age discrimination.
In many states, the EEOC has entered into a work-sharing agreement with the state fair employment practices agency. If you file a charge of discrimination with either the EEOC or the state agency in one of these states, it will automatically be filed with the other agency, too. If your state doesn't have a work-sharing agreement, and you want to preserve your rights under both federal and state law, you may file a charge with both agencies yourself.
Filing a Charge
Currently, you may file a charge of discrimination with the EEOC in person or by mail. To file by mail, you must include the following information:
- your name, address, and phone number
- the name, address, and phone number of the employer
- how many employees the employer has
- a short description of the discriminatory incident(s), including when it took place, and
- the basis for the discrimination (that is, whether the employer discriminated against you based on race, religion, or sex, for example).
You can find detailed information on the EEOC's charge-filing procedures at the EEOC website. To find out how to file a charge of discrimination under state law, contact your state's fair employment practices agency.
Getting Legal Help
If you believe you have been discriminated against, you may want to contact an experienced employment lawyer right away. A lawyer can help you figure out how best to protect your rights going forward, including whether and when to file a charge of discrimination and what to include in it. Once you file a charge, a lawyer can help you negotiate with your employer, participate in the agency's investigation (if there is one), and file a lawsuit.