Filing a Government Agency Claim Before a Lawsuit
If you believe you have been the victim of a civil rights violation, you most likely have the option of filing a lawsuit against those responsible for any harm suffered as a result. But you should be aware that for certain types of discrimination and civil rights violation allegations, you must file a claim or complaint with a federal or state agency before you file any private lawsuit in court, and these agencies typically set strict time limits for claim filing.
For example, for allegations of almost all types of employment discrimination, the charging party (i.e. an employee alleging discrimination) must file a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) before filing any private lawsuit, and must do so within 180 days of the alleged offense. Only after receiving a "right-to-sue" letter from the EEOC may individuals file a lawsuit. Another example is if you were the victim of a housing discrimination. You would contact the Housing and Urban Development Commision (HUD).
State agencies may also investigate a complaint for civil rights violations or discrimination, and may work alongside (or in place of) a federal agency. For example, employees who allege job discrimination in California may file a complaint with the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing. As part of its standard procedure, that state agency will usually send the complaint to the EEOC at the federal level, so that it becomes a "dual filing."
Filing the Claim/Complaint
- Determine the appropriate agency that addresses your type of claim. It varies regarding which federal agency has control over claims that arise under different federal laws.
- Contact the relevant department's office of Civil Rights. Every federal agency has an office that enforces civil rights violations. For example, if you had a complaint concerning a university, then you would contact the Dept. of Education's Office of Civil Rights. You may contact the Office of Civil Rights for the appropriate agency with the provided mailing address or via their website where you can submit your complaint online.
- Draft and file the claim. Include your name and contact information and an accurate and detailed description of the incident in which you allege that your civil rights were violated. The departments differ as to what information they need, so follow the instructions for the appropriate department. You should also include the name and contact information of the party that you allege discriminated against you and the names and contact information of any witnesses. File the complaint with the agency in person, in writing, or on the telephone.
- Follow up. The agency may not have the legal authority to investigate your claim. The agency will inform you if they decide to investigate. Or they will dismiss your claim if they do not have the legal authority to investigate or if you missed the deadline. The agency may encourage you to attend mediation and resolve your claims. Otherwise, the agency may launch an investigation. During the investigation, they might request additional information from you.
Get an Attorney's Help With Filing a Government Claim
The various types of civil rights cases, and the number of federal and state agencies that may have an interest in your case, make it difficult to discuss specific government claim-filing requirements. So, if you believe you have suffered a civil rights violation and are unsure whether you must file a claim with the government before proceeding with a lawsuit, the best place to start is to speak with a civil rights attorney.