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Process for Bringing a Discrimination Suit in the US Courts

John is an employee in a private sector organization. He wants to file a discrimination complaint against his employer. Write answer explaining the discrimination complaint and civil litigation processes.

Explain how the complaint begins with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and proceeds through the civil litigation process from the state level up to the United States Supreme Court.

References: EEOC Web site at:,
U.S. Court System Web site at:

The first step in determining how to proceed with a discrimination suit in US Courts is to first determine what type of discrimination has occured.

This includes determining if he can make a federal claim. The US Constitution has been interpreted to guarantee that persons have a right to be protected from discrimination in the workplace based on generally four areas: age, race/ethnicity, religion, and gender. Your hypothetical does not provide facts that would indicate what basis John may have a claim. Perhaps he is an elderly gentlemean fired due to age. Or, although rare, a white/caucasian male could make a claim for reverse-discrimination. In any event, we will assume he has a colorable claim for the rest of the discussion.

The second issue that should be explored, is determining whether John can make any discrimination claims under State law. The Federal guarantees serve as a floor with respect to rights. It is possible that an specific State Constitution could confer additional rights or identify additional groups in need of protection. Check your local jurisdiction's laws.

For the remainder of this discussion, we will assume that there are only colorable claims under federal law.

Under Federal law, A litigant is required to pursue all administrative law remedies before filing a law suit in a federal court.

The EEOC provides such an administrative remedy, and should therefore be sought in the local jurisdiction where the complainant lives or works.

The EEOC website states that a complaint should be filed withthe local office including the following information:
The complaining party's name, address, and telephone number;
The name, address, and telephone number of the respondent employer, employment agency, or union that is alleged to have discriminated, and number of employees (or union members), if known;
A short description of the alleged violation (the event that caused the complaining party to believe that his or her rights were violated); and
The date(s) of the alleged violation(s).

Please note that Federal employees or applicants for employment should see Federal Sector Equal Employment Opportunity Complaint Processing.

A Complaint must be filed timely, the EEOC states:
All laws enforced by EEOC, except the Equal Pay Act, require filing a charge with EEOC before a private lawsuit may be filed in court. There are strict time limits within which charges must be filed:

A charge must be filed with EEOC within 180 days from the date of the alleged violation, in order to protect the charging party's rights.
This 180-day filing deadline is extended to 300 days if the charge also is covered by a state or local anti-discrimination law. For ADEA charges, only state laws extend the filing limit to 300 days.
These time limits do not apply to claims under the Equal Pay Act, because under that Act persons do not have to first file a charge with EEOC in order to have the right to go to court. However, since many EPA claims also raise Title VII sex discrimination issues, it may be advisable to file charges under both laws within the time limits indicated.
To protect legal rights, it is always best to contact EEOC promptly when discrimination is suspected.
Federal employees or applicants for employment should see Federal Sector Equal Employment Opportunity Complaint Processing.
What Agency Handles a Charge that is also Covered by State or Local Law?
Many states and localities have anti-discrimination laws and agencies responsible for enforcing those laws. EEOC refers to these agencies as "Fair Employment Practices Agencies (FEPAs)." Through the use of "work sharing agreements," EEOC and the FEPAs avoid duplication of effort while at the same time ensuring that a charging party's rights are protected under both federal and state law.

If a charge is filed with a FEPA and is also covered by federal law, the FEPA "dual files" the charge with EEOC to protect federal rights. The charge usually will be retained by the FEPA for handling.
If a charge is filed with EEOC and also is covered by state or local law, EEOC "dual files" the charge with the state or local FEPA, but ordinarily retains the charge for handling.

After receiving the complaint, the EEOC will conduct an investigation. From their website:
If the evidence establishes that discrimination has occurred, the employer and the charging party will be informed of this in a letter of determination that explains the finding. EEOC will then attempt conciliation with the employer to develop a remedy for the discrimination.
If the case is successfully conciliated, or if a case has earlier been successfully mediated or settled, neither EEOC nor the charging party may go to court unless the conciliation, mediation, or settlement agreement is not honored.
If EEOC is unable to successfully conciliate the case, the agency will decide whether to bring suit in federal court. If EEOC decides not to sue, it will issue a notice closing the case and giving the charging party 90 days in which to file a lawsuit on his or her own behalf. In Title VII and ADA cases against state or local governments, the Department of Justice takes these actions.

After the EEOC conducts an investigation, the EEOC may recommend mediation if the parties are agreeable. It may also issue a "right to sue" letter. Upon issuing that letter, the complainant must file a complaint in state or federal court within 90 days. Here I will note that State Courts can have jurisdiction over federal claims, however, federal courts cannot have jurisdiction over a state claim unless there is diversity of citizenship between the parties or the state claims are pendant to the federal claims.

As a side note, Under the EPA, a lawsuit must be filed within two years (three years for willful violations) of the discriminatory act, which in most cases is payment of a discriminatory lower wage.

The question asked how the case would work itself up from state court to the US Supreme Court. Therefore we must assume that John chose to file his discrimination act in State court.

Every state jurisdiction has separate appeal processes, but generally a claimant will not to participate in a trial, then make any appropriate post-trial motions before an appellate court will take jurisdiction over the case. An appellate court will only be able to review the case on the basis of errors of law, or that the court made some other improper ruling (abuse of discretion in accepting evidence, etc.). If the appellate court makes a similar error, most states then have a supreme court which can also review tha case on the same grounds. If the only issues that were decided were federal issues, a litigant may than seek review of the case by the United States Supreme Court on those issues.

If the case were filed in a US District Court, a similar process would occur. With the intermediate court being the local Federal Court of Appeals.