Deciding whether to bring a lawsuit against your employer (or former employer) for engaging in what you perceive to be discriminatory conduct against you can be daunting. Unfortunately, the procedures for filing such lawsuits in federal court are neither easy nor intuitive. This post will serve as a brief overview of the process an individual needs to go through before filing a Title VII action in federal courts.
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 is the primary federal statute pursuant to which employees can sue their employer or former employer for certain types of discriminatory actions.1 Title VII makes it “an unlawful employment practice” for an employer “to fail or refuse to hire or to discharge any individual, or otherwise to discriminate against any individual with respect to his compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment, because of such individual’s race, color, religion, sex or national origin.” Title VII likewise makes it “an unlawful employment practice . . . to limit, segregate, or classify his employees or applicants for employment in any way which would deprive or tend to deprive any individual of employment opportunities or otherwise adversely affect his status as an employee, because of such individual’s race, color, religion, sex, or natural origin.”
In order to file a Title VII action in federal court, the employee must first get what is called a “right to sue letter” from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (the “EEOC”). In order to receive a right to sue letter from the EEOC, the employee must file a charge of discrimination with the EEOC. For an employee of a private company, a charge of discrimination must typically be filed with the EEOC within 180 calendar days of the employer’s discriminatory action.2 That 180-day period is extended to 300 days “if a state or local agency enforces a law that prohibits employment discrimination on the same basis.” The extension to 300 days applies to age discrimination claims only if (i) there is an applicable state law prohibiting age discrimination in employment, and (ii) there is “a state agency or authority enforcing that law.” There are, however, various exceptions to the general 180-day/300-day rule, including if the discrimination is “ongoing.” As a general matter, it is in the employee’s best interest to file a charge of discrimination with the EEOC as soon as reasonably possible following the employer’s discriminatory action.
The charge of discrimination form (otherwise known as an “EEOC Form 5”) can be found online at the EEOC’s website and physically filed at any of the EEOC’s 53 area offices. The EEOC also allows for charges of discrimination to be filed through its “EEOC Public Portal.”3 The charge of discrimination form requires you to submit basic information about both you and your employer, as well as a description of the particular actions taken by your employer or former employer that you believe are discriminatory.
Once a charge of discrimination is filed with the EEOC, a number of things occur. First, the EEOC sends a copy of your charge of discrimination to your employer. The EEOC sometimes asks the employee and the employer to agree to mediate pursuant to the EEOC’s mediation program. If the mediation is unsuccessful or does not occur at all, the EEOC begins an investigation into the claims outlined in your charge of discrimination. The EEOC will give the employer an opportunity to answer your charge of discrimination as part of its investigation into your allegations. You then have an opportunity to respond to the employer’s answer, and must do so within 20 days.
The EEOC’s investigation into your charge of discrimination can include a number of things, ranging from asking for and/or reviewing documents to interviewing witnesses. According to the EEOC, it takes “approximately 10 months to investigate a charge” of discrimination. An employee is not required to wait until the EEOC completes it investigation in order to receive a right to sue letter. If the EEOC has not completed its investigation within 180 days of the filing of the charge of discrimination, the employee can request a right to sue letter from the EEOC and the EEOC must provide one.
Upon receiving a right to sue letter, the employee can finally go to federal court and bring a Title VII claim against their employer. But this brief overview of the process leading up to that moment is only the tip of the iceberg. The process required to bring a Title VII claim against your employer is convoluted and can be incredibly confusing. On top of all of that, states have their own human rights/equal employment laws, some of which require a similar process and some of which require no such process at all. Though you are not required to retain an attorney for purposes of filing a charge of discrimination and making your way through the procedure described in this post, retaining an attorney to assist you and make sure that you complete every step and check every box can make it much easier to file a lawsuit against your employer under Title VII.
1 Title VII can be found at 42 U.S.C. § 2000e.
2 An entirely different process exists for employees of public employers who wish to file charges of discrimination with the EEOC, but that process is not the subject of this post.
3 Once a charge of discrimination is filed, the EEOC public portal also allows you to update information regarding your charge of discrimination, including uploading additional documents that you believe support the allegations contained in your charge.