The statute of limitations for bringing an employment lawsuit varies with the type of employment law claim we’re talking about.
Before we explore this further, let’s make sure we understand exactly what a statute of limitations is.
Statutes of limitations are deadlines by which you must file (or otherwise initiate) your legal claim. If you miss that deadline, you risk losing your right to pursue that particular claim simply because you waited too long to act.
Statute of Limitations Specifics
Some statutes of limitations are relatively short. For example, if you’re a union employee, you only have six (6) months to file a claim that your employer breached your Collective Bargaining Agreement and that your union breached its duty to fairly represent you.
You have just one (1) year from the date that you’ve been harassed, discriminated or retaliated against to file an administrative complaint of discrimination with the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing, and only one (1) year from your Right to Sue Notice from that Department to file a discrimination, harassment or retaliation lawsuit.
You also have only one (1) year to file claims for certain Labor Code penalties, and one (1) to file a lawsuit for defamation. But you have two (2) years to file most claims for wrongful termination or retaliation, two (2) years to sue for breach of an oral contract, and two (2) years to file a claim accusing your employer of outrageous workplace conduct aimed at causing you emotional distress.
You have at least three (3) years to file claims for your employer’s failure to pay you the wages or overtime you were legally entitled to, three (3) years to sue for fraud, and four (4) years to sue for breach of a written employment contract.
Statute of Limitations Exceptions
What if it turns out you’ve waited too long and your statute of limitations has already expired. Does that definitely mean you’ve lost your rights to sue forever? For a few types of claims the law is very unforgiving and the answer unfortunately is, Yes. For many other claims, however, the answer is: Not necessarily. Here are some statute of limitations exceptions:
First, employers actually have to raise the defense of statute of limitation for it to do anything, and if they don’t complain about the timing of your claim, then the timing simply doesn’t legally matter. Second, most statutes of limitations can be stretched out if the employer and employee agree to do so. These are called “tolling” agreements. They’re quite common to enter into them. Why? To buy us all more time to negotiate a favorable settlement of our client’s employment claims, so we aren’t pressured (by time) to prematurely file a lawsuit just because of the statute of limitations. Third, there are a number of situations where the law says your statute of limitations stops running and is put on hold because of certain things you or your employer do. And fourth, some statutes of limitations get stretched beyond their normal deadlines if your employer engages in newer bad acts.
Overall, the lesson is this: Because there are statutes of limitations that govern every kind of California employment law claim it’s always best to find a lawyer and take appropriate action as soon as possible. Don’t sit on your rights! However, if for some reason you didn’t do that, don’t give up. Instead, consult a knowledgeable attorney and see if maybe your case falls within one of those 4 special exceptions to an expired statute of limitations.