What is a right-to-sue letter, and how can I get one?

Question

I was laid off a few months ago. At the time, my manager told me that the company was downsizing and that they were eliminating a handful of jobs in our department. Since then, I've learned that all four of us who were laid off were Latino. I also learned that the company didn't get rid of our positions, and the four people they hired to replace us are all Caucasian. I'm thinking about filing a discrimination lawsuit. But I read online that I have to file papers with a government agency and get a "right-to-sue" letter before I can file a lawsuit. Is this right? What should I do next?

Answer

Yes, you do need to file an agency charge of discrimination and get a right-to-sue letter before you can file a lawsuit against your employer, which I explain below. But to answer your other question first, your next step should be a consultation with an experienced employment lawyer who can help you navigate this tricky process and negotiate with your employer.

Filing a charge of discrimination with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) or your state's fair employment practices (FEP) agency is a requirement that must be met before filing a lawsuit. Filing an agency charge is referred to as "exhausting" your administrative remedies. The requirement is meant to keep disputes out of court.

The exact procedures for filing a charge vary from state to state. Generally, however, you will have to speak to an agency representative and complete a questionnaire. You might have to fill out the charge form yourself, or the agency representative might complete it for you and ask you to sign it. Then, the charge will be filed and date-stamped at the agency. The date is important: You have to file a charge within a set period of time after the actions you believe were discriminatory occurred (in your case, your layoff). The time period is either 180 days or 300 days, depending on your state's law and your type of complaint.

The agency will make an initial determination about its authority to process your charge. If, for example, you are complaining about something other than discrimination (such as failure to pay overtime) or you have missed the time limit for filing your charge, the agency may dismiss your charge. If the agency proceeds, it might investigate the charge or attempt to mediate or otherwise settle your dispute with the employer.

Once the agency's charge-handling process is over, it will send you a right-to-sue letter. This letter states that you have met the requirement of filing a charge and that you may file a lawsuit. If you don't want to wait for the agency to finish its work, you are entitled to request a right-to-sue letter. However, if you plan to file a federal lawsuit, you will have only 90 days to do so after you receive the letter.

At this point, you might see why it makes sense to talk to a lawyer right away. A lawyer can help you navigate the charge-filing process, including making sure that your paperwork puts you and your legal claims in the best light. A lawyer can also help you deal with the agency and negotiate with your employer during the settlement and mediation process. If the agency investigates your claim, a lawyer can help you assess your employer's response. And, of course, once you get your right-to-sue letter, a lawyer can help you decide whether to move forward with a lawsuit and represent you in court. Even though you aren't in court yet, filing a charge is the first step in the legal process. An experienced employment lawyer can help you put your best foot forward.

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