Before Filing a Lawsuit

If you’ve experienced discrimination in the workplace or at school and you wish to file a lawsuit, you must first file a complaint.

If the discrimination took place at work, you must file a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. If the discrimination took place at school, you must file a complaint through the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights.

Discrimination in the Workplace: Filing with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) investigates filed complaints of Title VII violations. Its mission is to promote equal opportunity in employment through administrative and judicial enforcement of the federal civil rights laws and through education and technical assistance. The commission handles roughly 75,000–80,000 charges annually.

Typically, EEOC complaints must be filed within 180 days of the alleged discriminatory act. (If you filed with the appropriate state agency first, the statute of limitation can be up to 300 days.) It is crucial to contact the EEOC promptly when discrimination is suspected because if you file late, you may be barred from pursuing your claim. Even if you miss the deadline, however, you should still contact the EEOC and attempt to file a complaint.

When you contact the EEOC (800.669.4000), you will be connected to the nearest field office. EEOC staff will provide you with the procedures for filing a complaint. Within 10 days of filing a charge, the EEOC must notify your employer that a charge has been filed against it.

The next stage begins with an investigation or fact-finding conference among the EEOC, you, and the employer. At this time

  • Both sides elaborate on issues in the complaint.
  • You articulate the type of relief you seek.
  • The employer responds to the merits of the charges.

The EEOC will attempt to bring the two parties to some type of settlement. If a settlement is not reached, the charge remains with the EEOC. In most cases, regardless of whether or not the EEOC finds a cause of action, it will issue a “right-to-sue” letter to the charging party. This notice is a prerequisite for filing a lawsuit under Title VII. The charging party will then have 90 days from receipt of the letter to initiate a lawsuit.

EXAMPLE: Sally is a school janitor. Most of her colleagues are men. One of her peers who regularly works the same shift as Sally repeatedly touches and propositions her. She keeps telling him that he should stop, that she doesn’t want his attentions, and that she finds them offensive. He persists, and Sally protests to her boss, who takes no action against the employee. Sally then contacts the EEOC and files a sexual harassment complaint with the agency. She subsequently obtains legal counsel. Upon completion of the EEOC’s investigation and the receipt of her “right-to-sue” letter, she files a lawsuit in federal court under Title VII.

Discrimination at School: The OCR Process

The U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights (OCR) ensures equal access to education through enforcement of civil rights statutes. The agency resolves complaints of discrimination based on race, color, national origin, sex, disability, or age in all educational institutions that receive federal financial support. This includes elementary and secondary schools, colleges and universities, vocational schools, proprietary schools, state vocational rehabilitation agencies, libraries, and museums that receive federal funds. These pages focus only on Title IX sex discrimination complaints. For information on race, color, national origin, disability, or age complaints, please contact OCR.

A complaint of sex discrimination can be filed by anyone who believes that an educational institution that receives federal financial assistance has discriminated against someone on the basis of sex. The person or organization filing the complaint need not be a victim of the alleged discrimination, but may complain on behalf of another person or group.

To file a formal complaint with OCR, you should submit in writing the following information in a letter or on the Discrimination Complaint Form available from OCR enforcement offices:

  • your name and address,
  • a general description of the persons or class of persons injured by the alleged discriminatory acts,
  • the name and location of the institution that committed the alleged discriminatory acts, and
  • a description of the alleged discriminatory acts in sufficient detail to enable OCR to understand what occurred, when it occurred, and the basis for the alleged discrimination.

You must file a complaint with OCR within 180 days of the alleged discriminatory act in order to receive OCR legal support. You need not file with OCR before filing a sex discrimination claim in federal court. If you do proceed with your claim in court, OCR will not continue to pursue your OCR complaint.

EXAMPLE: In her middle school English class, Lisa sits next to a boy who constantly makes sexual comments about her appearance and touches her breasts whenever she walks up to the front of the classroom or during a break. Lisa reported the boy’s behavior to the teacher, but the teacher did nothing. When the harassment continued, Lisa and her parents talked to the school principal, but still nothing was done to address the boy’s behavior. Lisa contacted OCR and filed a complaint of sexual harassment.

Learn more about navigating the legal system.