Some prospective clients are surprised to learn that most of wrongful termination or sexual harassment matters than an employment lawyer handles cannot be taken straight to court. This is, unfortunately, true.

Most cases having to do with discrimination or wrongful termination relating to an EEO category (age, race, sex, disability, etc) must go through a required administrative process before a lawsuit can be filed. Even more confusing is the fact that you may have more than one administrative agency to choose from when deciding where to file. Does it matter where you file? Sometimes yes. This administrative process and the choices that must be made early on in your case is one of the best reasons to consider hiring a lawyer earlier rather than later. More on why that is later. Short of that, here are some answers to some of the more basic questions regarding administrative filings:

What Types Of Cases Must Be Filed Administratively?

If your case involves potential claims for discrimination or termination based on an EEO category (age, race, sex, disability, religion, etc) then you probably need to file administratively. Claims for sexual harassment or retaliation for making a complaint or participating in an investigation of an EEO-related matter also must be filed administratively.

When Do I Need To File? Short Answer: IMMEDIATELY.

No really. The limitation periods for these types of claims vary depending on numerous factors but they are all short. In many states you will lose your right to pursue an action if you don’t file a Charge with the EEOC within 180 days of the event or occurrence you are complaining about. If you are a federal worker the deadline can be as little as 45 days. These are hard, fixed deadlines. There is no extending them because you had a good reason for delay. In many states, you only have 180 days to file a charge with the EEOC or lose your right to sue FOREVER, no matter how blatant the discrimination.

Where Do I Need To File

The default place to file your discrimination, sexual harassment or retaliation Charge is with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. They have offices in most metropolitan areas. Learn more here: http://eeoc.gov/employees/charge.cfm. You can also file a Charge by contacting them by phone at (800) 669–4000 (be prepared to wait an hour or more). However, depending on where you live, it might be better to file with a state or city agency that has a work-sharing agreement with the EEOC. Contact an employment lawyer near you to help you decide what is the best course of action in your area.

What Is The Process?

Filing a Charge is relatively easy once you arrive at the agency’s offices. You fill out a short form and then meet with an investigator who will complete the Charge documents for your signature. Each field office has its own procedures for appointments or walk-ins so check the website or call ahead for best results. It is always helpful if you bring with you to the meeting any information or papers that will help the investigator understand your case. For example, if you were fired because of your performance, you might bring with you the letter or notice telling you that you were fired and your performance evaluations. You might also bring with you the names of people who know about what happened and information about how to contact them.

Important: Keep in mind that the EEOC (and similar state agencies) can only investigate issues having to do with terminations and/or discrimination relating to EEO issues or retaliation for having made a complaint regarding EEO issues. They don’t investigate overtime or other pay issues and cannot help you if your termination is just because “my boss was mean.” Your issue must be EEO-related.

What Happens Next?

Once you have filed a Charge you may be invited to mediation. This is a topic for another article but the short version is that mediation is a voluntary process where the two sides of the dispute (you and your employer) sit down with an EEOC mediator for free to see if you can work out your differences and reach a pre-suit settlement. It is an excellent free service that the EEOC provides and I highly recommend it for most cases. Keep in mind, however, that you will benefit from having a lawyer with you at a mediation unless your case is so small that you wish to settle it for very little money (typically less than $15,000.00. If your case is worth more than this baseline amount, having a good lawyer will typically enhance the value of your case by more than you will end up paying your lawyer in fees up front or in a contingent fee on the back end.

How Do I Find A Good Lawyer?

This can be a difficult task but it is worth your time to find the right lawyer for your case. Geography plays a big role here. In some parts of the country there will be many qualified lawyers to choose from. In other areas there will be few. To get started, review my article on How to Hire an Employment Lawyer.