If you want to file a lawsuit against your employer for discriminating against you in violation of federal law, you must first file a charge of discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the federal agency that interprets and enforces the laws prohibiting discrimination. This requirement applies to lawsuits filed under Title VII, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act, and the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act. It does not, however, apply to lawsuits alleging violations of the Equal Pay Act.
Once you file a charge, the EEOC will decide how to handle your claims, as described below. Once it has finished investigating your claim, the agency will issue you a right to sue letter, which notifies you that you have met the charge-filing requirement and may file a discrimination lawsuit.
You must file a charge of discrimination within 180 days of the discriminatory incident(s). If a state or local agency enforces the same type of antidiscrimination law (for example, a disability discrimination law, if your charge alleges you were discriminated against due to a disability), the time limit for filing a claim is extended to 300 days. If you are filing an age discrimination claim, the deadline is extended only if a state agency (not a local agency) enforces an age discrimination law.
After the EEOC receives your charge, it will give you a copy and send a copy to your employer. The agency might decide to proceed in a number of ways: It might invite you and the employer to participate in mediation, a session in which you and your employer would try to reach a resolution. The EEOC might also investigate your claims. If the agency decides that you missed the deadline to file a charge or it doesn't have jurisdiction over your claims, it will dismiss them. The EEOC also has the authority to litigate your claim on your behalf by pursuing charges against your employer. However, this is extremely rare.
More commonly, the EEOC will at some point issue you a right to sue letter. This letter indicates that the agency has finished processing your charge and that you are free to file a lawsuit. If you know you want to file a lawsuit, you can request a right to sue letter at any time. If it has been more than 180 days since you filed your charge, the agency must issue you the letter. If not, the agency will issue you the letter if it believes it won't be able to complete its investigation within 180 days.
Once you receive your right to sue letter, you have to act fast. If you're going to file a lawsuit, you must do it within 90 days of receiving the letter.
Although you must file a charge of discrimination before you can file an age discrimination lawsuit, you don't have to wait for a right to sue letter for this type of claim. Once 60 days have passed since you filed your charge, you may file a lawsuit. If, however, the agency completes its processing of your charge and issues a right to sue letter, you still must file your lawsuit within 90 days, just as with the other types of discrimination claims.
If you believe you have been discriminated against, you should speak to an experience employment lawyer right away. A lawyer can assess the strength of your claims and help you decide how to proceed. If you decide to file a charge of discrimination, the lawyer can complete the form for you and shepherd you through the process. And, once you receive a right to sue letter, the lawyer can get your case ready to file quickly.