Every legal claim that a person can file in civil court is subject to a “statute of limitations.” This is the period of time that the victim of a civil wrong has, after the claim arises, to bring legal action over the wrongdoing. If the claim is not filed within that specified statute of limitations, normally the claim is forever barred and cannot be raised thereafter.
In the field of employment law, some of these time periods are very short. In particular, the most important federal laws that prohibit employment discrimination and harassment – Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA), the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) – require fast action by the employee to preserve his or her rights. An employee who believes he or she has one of these federal claims must file a Charge of Discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) within just 300 days of the date on which the discriminatory action occurred. If the employee does not file within this fairly short time frame, then his or her federal claim is extinguished.
For instance, if an employee is fired from a job, and believes that his or her discharge was the result of race, age, or sex discrimination, he or she must file a charge with the EEOC no later than 300 days after the date on which notice of the discharge was received.
Sometimes it can be unclear, however, as to exactly when a discriminatory act “occurred,” and thus when the 300 day period begins to run. And in some cases – like sexual harassment – the discriminatory action or conduct is ongoing, and it doesn’t necessarily occur at a single time and place. These cases can require close examination and detailed analysis to determine whether or not they are time-barred.
Furthermore, many states – like Ohio – have their own laws against employment discrimination and harassment, and these laws carry their own statutes of limitation that can be longer (or shorter) than the 300 day period governing many Federal claims. Thus, in some circumstances, even if a person’s federal claim is time-barred they may still be able to pursue a claim under state law.
Needless to say, the issue of timeliness is critically important in the field of employment law, and it can be a dangerous minefield for the unwary. Both employers and employees should always promptly consult with a qualified employment attorney as soon as they have notice of a potential claim.