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Time Limits to Bring a Case: The 'Statute of Limitations'

A statute of limitations puts a time limit on the amount of time a person has to pursue legal action. The time frames depend on the alleged cause of action and the underlying laws applicable to the case. Federal courts set forth federal statutes of limitations and the state bases their statutes of limitations, which are specific to the claim or case.

Law dictionaries define a statute of limitations as a specific time period which is allotted for bringing a lawsuit. Lawmakers feel that it is unfair to allow an unfinished legal matter to hang over someone's head indefinitely. Therefore, the statutes of limitations are implemented to ensure fairness and practicability in lawsuits. It puts a distinct end to legal conflict to allow parties to move on beyond the lawsuit. At the same time, it ensures that the offending party in the legal dispute is aware of the fact that he or she may be accused of wrongful actions against someone else. Likewise, the person who was wronged must make a decision about pressing a lawsuit to recover damages for the wrongful action.

The majority of employment discrimination litigation in California is based on these major statutory schemes:

Civil Rights Act of 1964, Title VII, which prohibits discrimination based on national origin, race, religion, sex and color;

California Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA) which prohibits discrimination based on sex, race, color, religion, ancestry, national origin, age, marital status, mental and physical disability, and medical conditions, which include pregnancy and childbirth.

These schemes require that administrative charges be filed and investigated before an employee can bring legal action.

Every kind of legal action has a specific statute of limitations during which a case must be filed. Once the time period for filing the claim has passed, the right to file could expire indefinitely. In most instances, a victim may not bring a future claim after the statute of limitations has expired. Depending on the type of procedure or case specifics, California offers statutes of limitations ranging from one year to up to ten years starting from the date of the incident, or the date on which a person discovers the wrongful action.

In most cases, state statutes of limitations offer California employees up to one year to bring a case for employment issues, such as:

  • Religious Discrimination 
  • Disability Discrimination
  • Race Discrimination 
  • Gender Discrimination 
  • At-Will Employment and Wrongful Termination
  • Quid Pro Quo Harassment 

Once the statute of limitations has run out, the wronged party loses his or her right to sue.

Statute of Limitations on Wrongful Termination in California

California is an at will employment state, which means that employers have the right to terminate employees at any time for any reason, provided that it does not violate public policy or a harassment or discrimination law that protects the employees.

When an employer violates public policy, the employee has two years from the date of termination to bring a lawsuit for wrongful termination. Wrongful termination claims based on discrimination can be filed under:

  • Civil Rights Act of 1964, a federal law, and
  • California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA), a state law

Both of these laws set aside provisions for case-specific statutes of limitations.

Under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and a variety of other federal anti-discrimination laws, an employee typically has 180 days to file charges with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). The clock starts ticking from the date on which the employee is wrongfully terminated. The EEOC will launch an investigation. It the EEOC fails to satisfy your needs, they will issue a Notice of Right to Sue. When you receive this notice, you have a year to file a civil suit.

Alternatively, you may file a charge with the Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH), a federal agency within 300 days. If it does not resolve the charge and issues a right to sue notice, you have one year to file a claim in the civil courts.

Employment claims are usually processed and investigated by the Department of Industrial Relations' Division of Labor Enforcement. The California Labor Commissioner's Division of Labor Standards Enforcement will follow a set administrative procedure for hearings and appeals. This process is applicable to:

  • failure to pay due wages
  • unauthorized paycheck deductions
  • failure to maintain proper records
  • unpaid overtime compensation
  • violation of employment contracts or personnel handbook policies

Employees have four years to file charges against employees who fail to pay overtime wages, and three years for code violations, overtime violations, recordkeeping violations and unauthorized paycheck deductions.

Furthermore, a two-year statute of limitations applies to claims filed based on oral agreements or oral contracts. The employee's right to file a claim expires after two years.

Claims for Labor Code Violations must first be filed with the Labor Commissioner, including:

  • minimum wages
  • unpaid overtime
  • and commission

The claimant has three years from the date of earning the wages to file in court or with the Labor Commissioner. The employee may lose a percentage of their claims if he or she worked more than three years. The plaintiff may include a Business and Professions Code Section 17200 cause of action in court and that will effectively extend the statute of limitations by another year, which means that the employee may file charges for a total of four years. However, this option is only available for court filings and not for claims with the Labor Commissioner.

Wage discrimination claims that are based on gender-related issues must be made under the California Equal Pay Act. The statute of limitations is two years for most wage discrimination claims, unless it can be proven that it was malicious or willful, which extends the statute of limitations to three years.

Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) claims must also be filed within two years, unless it can be proven that it was malicious or willful, which extends the statute of limitations to three years.

The clock on the statute of limitations always starts ticking from the moment discrimination or violation occurs, from the time the claimant becomes aware of the issue, or after receiving a notice of right to sue.

Statute of Limitations For Wrongful Termination

Employees in California may sue their employers for wrongful termination if they are laid off or fired for wrongful termination against public policy or in violation or implied contracts, as well as termination for:

  • exercising of rights under protected political activities or the FEHA
  • whistleblower activities
  • WARN Act violations in cases that involve massive layoffs

The type of lawsuit filed will determine the damages that are available to you in a wrongful termination lawsuit, but in most cases, it will fall into at least one of the following categories:

  • Lost wages and benefits
  • Your legal fees
  • Compensation for pain and suffering or emotional distress caused by the wrongful termination
  • Punitive damages aimed at punishing your employer for willful wrongdoing

Some wrongful termination cases involve violations of written or implied contracts. When an employer violates one or more provisions in a written employment contract, the employee has four years from the date of the breach to file a claim, and not from the date of the termination.

In cases involving implied employment contracts, the statute of limitations to file for wrongful termination is two years from the date of the breach.

Sometimes, fraud or defamation may be alleged as causes for wrongful termination. In these cases, the statute of limitations are controlled by the alloted time periods for filing a claim for the specific causes of action, for example:

  • Fraudulent terminations afford an employee three years from the date on which the fraud was discovered.
  • Slander, defamation, or libel cases typically offer a year in which the employee can file a claim. 

The amount of time allowed for a statute of limitations can only be extended if the statute is suspended or tolled. When the statute of limitations is suspended for a particular cause of action, it gives the plaintiff more time to file, even if the initial deadline was missed.

In extremely rare cases, equitable tolling is allowed in wrongful termination cases when the aggrieved individual is unable to meet the statute of limitations requirements despite his or her diligence and best efforts.

As such, California does not have a standard statute of limitations that applies across the board for wrongful termination claims. Instead, it varies depending on the type of law the employee selects. Employment discrimination cases do not always fit neatly into either contract or tort cases, and as such, special statutes of limitations have been enacted by the California Legislature, as these examples illustrate:

Wage and Overtime Matters: Employees typically have three years to file unpaid wage claims, but the Unfair Competition Law (UCL) extends the statute of limitations to four years for unpaid wages. However, wronged parties must bring wage statement claims within a year.

Slander and Libel: The complainant has a year from the date on which an oral or written defamatory statement to file a lawsuit.

CFRA Retaliation Claims:  This is a two-step process by which the claimant has to first file an administrative complaint with a California Family Rights Act (CFRA) agency. The complainant has a year to file a lawsuit after receiving a right-to-sue letter from the California Family Rights Act (CFRA) agency.

FEHA Discrimination Claims: As with California Family Rights Act (CFRA) agency, Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA) complaints follow a two-step process by filing an administrative complaint. After receiving the right-to-sue notice, a complainant has a year to file for damages in civil court.

FMLA Claims, Intentional Infliction of Emotional Stress and Breach of an Oral Contract Claims: A two-year statute of limitations applies to any of these cases, adding an additional year for intentional FMLA claims.

Statute of Limitations for Wrongful Termination as the Result of Harassment or Discrimination

Discriminatory wrongful termination claims, as with most other employment law claims, can be filed under the the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VII) or under California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA). You first have to file an administrative complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) or with FEHA.

The EEOC affords a wronged employee 180 days to file a charge, unless he or she has access to a local government or state agency. California-based employees can turn to the Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH) within 300 days of the termination date. If the state agency of EEOC fails to resolve the charges, it will issue a Right to Sue notice, and the employee then has ninety days to file a claim with the California civil court or federal court.

Get Help Interpreting Your Rights in Terms of Statute of Limitations

As you can see, the law can be extremely complex. Various aspects affect the statute of limitations, which are not necessarily standard, even on similar sections of the law. That is why it is important to get a professional opinion about whether your employer acted outside of the law by terminating you or acted in a discriminatory manner towards you.

Remember that whistleblowing laws are in place to protect you and other employees who may bear witness to your case against being punished or terminated for doing so. At-will employment laws do not give employers free reign to act unlawfully and if you  experienced discrimination or unfair dismissal, you may well be within your rights to file a claim against them.

However, the statute of limitations takes effect as soon as the unfair dismissal occurs, which means that you should see an employment attorney as soon as possible. Call California Sexual Harassment Law now at 800-905-1856 to schedule an initial case assessment with an experienced employment attorney who will advise you about the merits of your case and the statute of limitation that applies to your specific situation.

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