What Is the Statute of Limitations For Filing a Race Discrimination Lawsuit?

You must file a charge of discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) before you can file a lawsuit under Title VII -- and there are strict time limits for doing both.

Updated by , J.D. · University of Missouri School of Law

Race discrimination in employment is prohibited by two federal laws: Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Section 1981 of the Civil Rights Act of 1866.

If you're facing workplace race discrimination, you should consult with a lawyer to discuss your options. A lawyer can help you assess your situation and figure out the best way to proceed -- and, if you want to file a lawsuit under Title VII, a lawyer can make sure you meet all the relevant statutes of limitations to protect your right to sue.

What Is Race Discrimination?

Race discrimination might include segregating employees of a particular race in certain jobs, making decisions based on stereotypes about race, treating an employee differently for associating with people of a particular race, making decisions based on conditions that correlate to race, or making distinctions based on skin color.

Here are some examples:

  • A department store chain routinely channels white employees to sales jobs, while Latino employees are placed mostly in restocking and warehouse positions.
  • A delivery company refuses to hire Asian applicants as truck drivers; the hiring manager believes Asians are poor drivers and more likely to get in accidents.
  • A consulting firm doesn't promote a white employee whose husband is Lebanese; the firm's principals often bring their spouses when they entertain important clients, and they are afraid their clients will feel uncomfortable around an Arab American.
  • A restaurant chain has many African American employees; however, the chain routinely assigns lighter-skinned African Americans to wait tables and seat customers, while African Americans with darker skin are channeled to jobs washing dishes and busing tables.

Harassment based on race is also illegal. For example, if employees tell racist jokes or threaten an employee because of his race, that would constitute illegal racial harassment.

Proving Race Discrimination in the Workplace

In a race discrimination lawsuit, you generally must prove all of the following:

  • You are in a protected class.
  • You are qualified for a job or performing it adequately.
  • You were denied a job benefit (for example, you were not hired) or subjected to a negative job action (such as termination or demotion).
  • The person who got the benefit was of a different race or the company continued to search for qualified applicants.

For example, if you were denied a promotion and you believe it was because you are Chinese, your prima facie case would consist of proving that you were qualified for the promotion, you didn't get it, and the person who got it is not Chinese.

Once you present this evidence, the employer must produce some evidence that it had a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for its decision. In the above example, the employer might claim that you lacked the necessary skills, licenses, or experience for the promotion.

After the employer presents this evidence, you ultimately bear the burden of proving that the employer's decision as discriminatory. The most common way to do this is to prove that the employer's explanation is a pretext for discrimination.

Again, using the promotion example, you might present evidence that the person who was promoted actually had less experience than you, that you had the necessary qualifications for the job, and that the company has never promoted a Chinese person to its managerial ranks.

Statutes Prohibiting Race Discrimination

There are two federal statutes that prohibit race discrimination: Title VII and Section 1981. Most states also prohibit race discrimination in employment.

Although both statutes were originally passed to protect historically disadvantaged groups from discrimination (particularly African Americans), both protect people of all races from discrimination.

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act

Title VII was passed as part of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It prohibits discrimination in employment on the basis of certain protected characteristics, which are:

  • race
  • color
  • religion
  • sex, (including sexual orientation, gender identity, and pregnancy) and
  • national origin.

Section 1981

Section 1981 was passed in 1866, during the Reconstruction Era after the Civil Was. It declared African Americans to be citizens of the United States, entitled to enjoy the rights previously reserved to white men.

These rights include the right to make and enforce contracts, which courts have interpreted to include the right to work free of race discrimination.

    What Is the Statute of Limitations for Filing a Discrimination Charge with the EEOC?

    If you decide to sue under Title VII, you will first have to file a charge of discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the federal agency that interprets and enforces antidiscirmination laws.

    Filing a charge is a legal prerequisite to filing a lawsuit. You must file a charge within 180 days of the discriminatory act; this time limit is extended to 300 days if your state or local government also has a law prohibiting race discrimination (as noted above, most do).

    How the EEOC Responds to a Discrimination Charge

    Once you file your charge, the EEOC will decide how to handle it. The agency might dismiss your charge, if it believes it lacks jurisdiction over your case for some reason. Most often, the agency conducts an investigation.

    It may also try to mediate a settlement between you and your employer. In very rare cases, it might even decide to litigate the case on your behalf.

    When the agency finishes processing your charge, it will issue you a right to sue letter, letting you know that you may file a lawsuit. Once you get the letter, you have only 90 days to file your case in court.

    What Is the Section 1981 Statute of Limitations?

    If you decide to sue under Section 1981, you don't have to file a charge of discrimination with the EEOC. Instead, you can proceed straight to court. And, you have four years from the most recent discriminatory act to file your lawsuit.

    In fact, some employees decide to use Section 1981 precisely because of this longer time limit, especially if they have missed the deadline for filing an EEOC charge.

    What an Employment Attorney Can Do For You

    If you believe you are being discriminated against because of your race, you should talk to an experienced lawyer right away. A lawyer can assess your situation and help you decide what to do.

    If you are still employed, the lawyer can help you navigate your company's complaint process and investigation. If you've lost your job, the lawyer can try to negotiate a settlement with your employer. If you plan to file a lawsuit, a lawyer can help you decide which statute to sue under and how best to proceed.

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