Unlike statutes of limitations for personal injury claims, which are fairly straightforward (e.g., 4 years from the date of the car accident), statutes of limitations for federal employment discrimination claims are often variable, depending on factors such as: (1) when the plaintiff believed or should have reasonably believed that he was subjected to discrimination, (2) whether the discriminatory act is a “continuing violation”, (3) whether there is a state or local agency equivalent to the EEOC which enforces a law that prohibits discrimination on the same basis as the relevant federal law, and (4) how long it takes for the EEOC to issue a “right to sue letter” to the plaintiff. This article will discuss the statutes of limitations applicable to employment discrimination claims brought under Title VII, the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA), the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA), the Equal Pay Act (EPA) and Section 1981. It is not applicable to employees of the federal government, which have procedures that vary from agency to agency.
The Time Limit for Filing an EEOC Complaint
Before one can sue an employer for a violation of Title VII, the PDA, ADA or ADEA, one must first file a timely written charge of discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). The time limit for filing such a complaint depends upon whether your state or local government has an agency similar to the federal EEOC which enforces a law that prohibits discrimination on the same basis as the plaintiff alleges under federal law. These state and local agencies are known as Fair Employment Practices Agencies, or FEPAs, by the EEOC. Their actual names will vary (the State of Florida’s is called the Florida Commission on Human Relations), so the only way to be sure whether there is a FEPA in your location is to contact your local EEOC field office, which maintains a list of FEPAs.
If there is no FEPA in your area, the deadline for filing a written charge of discrimination with the EEOC is 180 days from the day the discrimination took place. If there is a FEPA in your area which enforces a state or local law that prohibits the same type of discrimination as you allege under federal law, the deadline for filing an EEOC charge for Title VII, PDA and ADA claims is extended to 300 days. For ADEA claims, the deadline is extended to 300 days only if there is a FEPA which enforces a state law prohibiting age discrimination — a local law is not sufficient to extend the 180 day deadline for ADEA claims.
So, your deadline for filing an EEOC charge for a Title VII, PDA, ADA or ADEA claim will either be 180 or 300 days from the date of the discriminatory act. But, what if you didn’t know at the time of the employment action that discrimination was a motive? In cases where it is not obvious at the time of the employment decision that discrimination took place, the court starts the EEOC charge deadline from the date that the employee either believes or has reason to believe that he is the victim of discrimination. One should not rely on this “extension” of the charge filing deadline unless necessary, as the courts tend to rule that a person should have known that he was the victim of discrimination long before the person thinks he should have known.
If you were the subject of a pattern of discriminatory events, you may be able to include all of these events in your charge (even ones which occurred more than 180 or 300 days ago) if the discriminatory acts can be viewed as a “continuing violation”. The continuing violation theory is more likely to be accepted in “hostile work environment” cases than in those involving specific discrete employment decisions (such as being denied a promotion multiple times). The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009 explicitly provides that for equal pay violations, the charge filing period resets with each paycheck that reflects the pay disparity and does not expire 180 or 300 days after the initial discriminatory pay decision was made. The Lilly Ledbetter law applies not only to Title VII, but the PDA, ADA and ADEA as well.
The Time Limit for Filing an Employment Discrimination Lawsuit
Title VII, PDA, and ADA
For claims brought pursuant to Title VII, the PDA or the ADA, one needs to obtain a “Notice of Right to Sue” (also known as a “right to sue letter”) from the EEOC before a lawsuit can be filed. The EEOC will automatically issue a right to sue letter after it completes its investigation of your charge if it finds that your charge is not supported by probable cause (this finding doesn’t prevent you from suing — or winning). If the EEOC finds that probable cause exists for the charge, it will attempt to settle the issue between you and your employer. If this fails, the EEOC may decide to sue the employer on your behalf (this is not the norm). If it chooses not to sue on your behalf, it will issue a right to sue letter so that your own lawyer may file suit.
If the EEOC does not complete its investigation within 180 days of the filing of your charge (this happens quite often), you can immediately request a right to sue letter at that time. The EEOC will then stop its investigation and issue the Notice of Right to Sue.
Title VII, PDA, and ADA
For Title VII, PDA and ADA cases, you must file a lawsuit within 90 days of receiving the EEOC’s Notice of Right to Sue. Otherwise, your lawsuit is time barred.
For ADEA claims, you do not need to obtain a Notice of Right to Sue before filing a lawsuit. You can file your lawsuit after 60 days have passed from the day you filed your EEOC charge, but no later than 90 days after the EEOC gives you notice that it completed its investigation.
You May Want to Delay Requesting Your Notice of Right to Sue
There may be strategic reasons for allowing the EEOC to continue its investigation beyond the 180 day (or 60 day, in ADEA cases) review period. For example, if you have not yet obtained a lawyer, you may not want to request a Notice of Right to Sue — thereby starting the 90 day clock on filing your lawsuit — until you have done so.
Statute of Limitations for Equal Pay Act Claims
A plaintiff bringing a claim under the Equal Pay Act (EPA) does not need to file a charge with the EEOC or obtain a Notice of Right to Sue. Rather, a lawsuit can be filed directly no later than 2 years after you received the last discriminatory paycheck (3 years in the case of willful discrimination).
Statute of Limitations for Section 1981 Claims
As with the EPA, a plaintiff pursuing a claim under 42 U.S.C. §1981 (Section 1981) does not need to file an EEOC charge or obtain a Notice of Right to Sue. The statute of limitations for Section 1981 claims is 4 years from the date of the discriminatory act. This may be extended for “continuing violations” or cases in which the discrimination was not reasonably known to the plaintiff, as it is explained above in the EEOC complaint section of this article. However, the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act does not apply to Section 1981 cases.