The Statute of Limitations on Sexual Harassment Claims

Sexual harrassment in healthcare workplace
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A statute of limitations is the amount of time you have to take legal action against someone else. In the case of a sexual harassment complaint or lawsuit, the amount of time you have to file depends on whether:

  • You work for a federal government agency or another type of employer
  • In addition to the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), a state or local agency enforces sexual harassment laws where you live

The following information applies to people who applied for a job as well as former employees, not just current employees.

Process for a Federal Government Worker

If you work for the federal government, you must first file a discrimination complaint with the EEOC before you are able to file a civil lawsuit. In addition to discrimination based on sex, race, natural origin, and a number of other categories, an EEOC discrimination complaint may also cover matters such as sexual harassment and equal compensation.

Filing a Complaint

You must contact an EEO counselor within 45 days of the day the harassment occurred. And you must file your complaint within 15 days of the day after you were notified by your EEO counselor about the filing process. If the 15th day falls on a weekend or holiday, you have until the next business day. The federal agency you work for is required to give you a reasonable amount of time during your workday to prepare the complaint.

Parts of the Complaint

The complaint must include the following information:

  • Your name, address, and telephone number
  • A short description of the events that you believe were examples of sexual harassment
  • An explanation of why you believe you were discriminated against
  • A short description of any injury you suffered
  • Your signature or your lawyer's signature, if applicable

Investigation and Decision

The EEOC will send you an acknowledgement of the complaint and will let you know whether it is dismissing it for a procedural reason or is beginning an investigation. If the EEOC dismisses the complaint, you have 30 days to appeal the dismissal.

The EEOC has 180 days from the filing date to complete its investigation. The investigation may be extended by another 180 days if you add new events to your complaint or file a new complaint, which must be investigated at the same time as the original complaint.

When the investigation is finished, you may either request a hearing before an EEOC administrative judge or ask the agency itself to decide whether you were sexually harassed. At some point during the investigation, the agency might also propose a settlement that you may accept or reject.

If the EEOC does not complete its investigation within 180 days, you may ask for a hearing that will be presided over by an EEOC judge or file a lawsuit in federal district court. If the agency finds you were not sexually harassed, you may file a lawsuit in federal court within 90 days of receiving the decision. You may also appeal the decision. If the agency again finds you were not harassed, you have the option of filing a lawsuit within 90 days. You may also file a lawsuit if the EEOC has not made a decision on the appeal after 180 days.

Process for Everyone Else

If you work for a public or private company, a state or local government agency, an employment agency, or a labor union or joint apprenticeship committee, you must still file a complaint with the EEOC before filing a sexual harassment lawsuit. However, the process is a bit different.

Number of Employees

Unlike with the federal government, in most cases, your employer must have a minimum number of employees or members to be covered by the discrimination laws the EEOC enforces. The exceptions are employment agencies and joint labor-management committees that control apprenticeships or other training or retraining programs.

A business or state or local government agency must have at least 15 employees who worked a minimum of 20 calendar weeks in either the current or previous year. A labor union must have at least 15 members or operate a hiring hall.

Filing a Complaint

You have a minimum of 180 days from the time of the latest incident to make the filing. If you live in a state or locality where there's an agency that enforces sexual harassment laws, you may have 300 days or more from the time of the latest incident to make the filing.

Because it varies by state, you should investigate the number of days you have to file a sexual harassment charge with the EEOC or the applicable agency in your specific state. For example, in California, you have one year from the date of the latest incident to file a charge, while in New York, you have three years.

You may file a charge of sexual harassment in one of four ways:

  1. Online, through the EEOC's Public Portal
  2. At an EEOC office
  3. At a state or local Fair Employment Practices Agency (FEPA)
  4. By mail

You will be asked to provide the following information:

  • Your name, address, email, and telephone number
  • The name, address, email, and telephone number of the employer, employment agency, or union you want to file your charge against
  • The number of employees or members at that entity, if known
  • A short description of the actions that you believe were examples of sexual harassment
  • The dates when the actions took place
  • An explanation of why you believe you were discriminated against
  • Your signature, if filing by mail

Whether you filed with the EEOC or through an FEPA, your charge should automatically also be filed with the other agency; you should check to make sure it has been. That dual-filing arrangement enables you to preserve your legal rights under both federal and state or local law.

Mediation and Compensation

You and the party you filed a charge against will be offered a chance to settle the matter with the assistance of a mediator. If one or both parties do not agree to mediation, the charge will be investigated.

If the EEOC finds in your favor after the investigation, you may be awarded compensatory and punitive damages. The former are to pay you back for financial losses and emotional harm caused by the harassment. The latter are to punish the other party.

The limits to the total amount of compensation vary according to the number of employees or members the other party has:

Number of Employees or Members Maximum Compensation
15-100 $50,000
101-200 $100,000
201-500 $200,000
More than 500 $300,000

Source: EEOC

Filing a Lawsuit

If, after finding in your favor, the EEOC is unable to resolve your complaint with the entity you filed harassment charges against, it may file a lawsuit on your behalf, though the percentage of cases it takes to court is small.

You may also file a lawsuit once you have received a Notice of Right to Sue from the EEOC. The EEOC will automatically give you that notice once it has completed its investigation. The EEOC is required to give you that notice if it hasn't completed its investigation within the required time frame.

Once you have received that notice, you have 90 days to file a lawsuit in either federal or state court.

Before You File a Charge

Advocates and attorneys for victims of sexual harassment emphasize it is important you speak to a supervisor or HR representative about the offensive behavior of your coworker before you file a charge of sexual harassment. That way, your employer can't claim it was unaware of the harassment.

You should also state directly to the person harassing you that their behavior is unwanted. As difficult as that may be to do, especially if they are your direct supervisor, talking back to your harasser makes it harder for them to later maintain that you consented to their behavior.

It is not necessary to be represented by an attorney to file a sexual harassment charge, but you may choose to consult with one who specializes in employment law.