Employment law is highly technical and can be overwhelming. You might feel as if you have a case but you are wondering what to do next. You may be unsure about how your case would do in court, or you may have so many questions that you don't know where to begin. While it is a good idea to consult an attorney knowledgeable in employment law, you can start by avoiding these five pitfalls.
1. You fail to go to the EEOC or file suit quickly.
Many employment claims--particularly those involving discrimination--require that you go the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) before you sue in court. Failure to do so may mean that you will forever lose your right to sue your employer. For federal employees, you have as little as 45 days to bring your case to your agency's EEO officer. For employees of private employers, you have either 180 or 300 days to file a charge. Filing a charge is not a difficult task, and it is free. If you have questions about filing with the EEOC, contact the agency (www.eeoc.gov), or go to your local field office.
You can also satisfy this requirement by visiting your state counterpart to the EEOC. In the District, it is the Office of Human Rights. In Virginia, it varies by county, but most counties have a Human Rights Commission, including Arlington (703-228-3929), Fairfax (703-324-2953), and Alexandria (703-746-3140).
Please note that you may not be required to go to the EEOC to preserve your claim. For instance, overtime claims and those involving the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) are not handled by the EEOC, and you are not required to file with another agency before going to court.
Other claims that come up in the employment context may have short time limits. For instance, in most states, unwanted touching ("assault and battery") has a short statute of limitations of only one year. I had one case in which my client's supervisor spat in her face during an argument. She didn't realize this was illegal and didn't visit a lawyer until one year later, when it was too late to sue for assault.
Moral: If you believe you have an employment claim, consult an employment attorney or contact the EEOC as soon as possible.
2. You rely only on the EEOC.
While you may be required to bring your claim to the EEOC first (depending on the claim), don't stop there.
There are many top-notch investigators and attorneys at the EEOC, but this is not universally true. Your case may be assigned to a mediocre case agent or one who is overworked and therefore unable to do a good job. If that's the case, the agency is likely to decline to take your case. This does not mean that you have a "bad" case; it just means that you need a lawyer to take your case to court.
Moral: The EEOC may be a necessary first step, but in many cases, it is only a first step. Don't give up just because the EEOC or your state agency doesn't give you the help you need and deserve.
Next time, I'll reveal two more ways you may inadvertently destroy your chances of filing a successful lawsuit.