How long do you have to file a wrongful termination lawsuit? (2023)

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How long do you have to file a wrongful termination lawsuit? (1)

If you believe you have been wrongfully terminated, you have to file your lawsuit before the statute of limitations expires. The applicable statute of limitations will depend on the state and the nature of the termination.

Different labor laws use different time periods and procedures. In California, for example, wrongful termination claims under state law have to be filed within 2 or 3 years.

What is the statute of limitations for a wrongful termination claim?

The statute of limitations sets a window of time for you to file a wrongful termination claim against your employer. Unfortunately, there is no single statute of limitations that covers all wrongful termination claims.

Both state and federal labor laws protect workers from illegal discharges. Many of these laws have their own statute of limitations. Some also have specific administrative remedies that have to be pursued before you can go to court.

Example: Whisteblowers

An example of the different time limitations for wrongful termination lawsuits has to do with retaliatory firings of whistleblowers.

California Labor Code 1102.5 LC is a state law that protects whistleblowers who report illegal activity in the workplace. It prohibits retaliation against you for:

  • disclosing information to law enforcement that you reasonably believe shows that there has been a violation or noncompliance with a law or regulation, or
  • testifying or providing information to a public investigation about what you reasonably believe to be a violation or noncompliance of a law or regulation.1

The statute of limitations for this particular state law is simple. Under Labor Code 1102.5 LC, you have to file your wrongful termination claim in state court within 3 years.2

Federal law

The Sarbanes-Oxley Act is a federal law that also protects whistleblowers, though it is limited to reports of alleged securities fraud.

You have 4 years to file a wrongful termination claim under the Sarbanes-Oxley Act.3 However, before a lawsuit can be filed, you have to satisfy an extensive administrative process. This process requires you to file a complaint with the United States Secretary of Labor or one of its designees within 180 days.

The Secretary of Labor then has 180 days to act on the complaint. Only if the Secretary does not pursue the complaint within that timeframe do you have the right to file a wrongful termination lawsuit in federal court.4

Complications like these make it difficult to understand how long you have to file a lawsuit for wrongful termination.

How does a statute of limitations work?

A statute of limitations is a law that limits when you can file a particular type of lawsuit.

The time limit set by the statute typically begins when the allegedly wrongful conduct occurred. For wrongful termination cases, this is generally the date of termination.

When the statute of limitations expires

Once the amount of time expires, you lose your right to file your lawsuit and vindicate your legal rights. If you file your claim after the statute of limitations has expired, it can be quickly dismissed. All that the former employer has to do is show that the statute of limitations has been violated.

In some cases, the statute can be tolled, or delayed, though this rarely happens in wrongful termination claims.

Benefits of statutes of limitations

Many plaintiffs see the statute of limitations as unfair. However, these statutes serve some important purposes. They:

  • make you promptly pursue your claim,
  • ensure that evidence is still fresh and easily found, and
  • let the defendant repose once the time period to file the lawsuit has passed.

What is a wrongful termination?

A wrongful termination is when an employer lays off or fires you for an illegal reason. A termination or constructive discharge can be wrongful if it:

  • goes against public policy,
  • violates an implied contract of employment,
  • is an act of employment discrimination, or
  • retaliates against you because you exercised a legal right or privilege.

You have some of these employee rights even if you have an at-will employment relationship with your employer.

Potential damages

Successful cases can recover a verdict or wrongful termination settlement that provides compensation for:

  • back pay and front pay,
  • harm to your reputation, if the former employer engaged in defamation,
  • attorneys’ fees, and
  • punitive damages.

Different governing laws

Wrongful terminations can violate several state and federal laws at once. While this gives you additional legal protections, it can quickly become confusing.

Many laws overlap each other, but have nuanced differences that can make or break a case. Getting legal advice from a wrongful termination lawyer from a local law firm is essential to preserve your claim.

Are there special procedures for filing a wrongful termination case?

Many laws that protect you from wrongful terminations require you to go through an administrative process before taking your case to court. This process is designed to:

  • give the employer the opportunity to correct the issue without being brought to court,
  • resolve the dispute through mediation or arbitration, rather than a full-blown lawsuit,
  • give law enforcement the opportunity to conduct its own investigation into potentially wide-ranging violations, and
  • take some strain off the legal system.

Shorter statutes of limitations

However, the additional process can create confusion for terminated workers since the deadlines for filing a complaint is often very short. For example, if you think you have a discrimination claim under federal anti-discrimination laws like Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, you have only 180 days to file a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). There also may be multiple deadlines to comply with.

Noncompliance can mean that your complaint is thrown out of court for not exhausting your potential administrative remedies. Hiring an employment attorney or employment lawyer is the best way to keep this from happening.

How long do I have to file my wrongful termination lawsuit in California?

The statute of limitations for wrongful termination lawsuits that are filed under one of California’s employment laws will depend on the nature of the claim. Generally, though, you will have either 2 or 3 years to file your lawsuit.

Two-year statute of limitations

You have 2 years to file wrongful termination lawsuits that are grounded in breach of contract claims.5 These include discharges that:

  • violated an oral or written contract that specified when you could be discharged,6 or
  • broke an employment contract that specified how long it would last.7

You also have 2 years to file lawsuits based on a violation of public policy.8 Terminations can be wrongful for violating public policy when you are fired for:

  • exercising a legal right or privilege, like unpaid leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) or filing a workers’ compensation claim after a workplace injury,
  • refusing to break the law at the employer’s request,
  • reporting potential legal violations in the workplace, like repeated violations of anti-discrimination laws based on national origin, genetic information, gender identity, or sexual orientation, or
  • performing a legal obligation.9

Three-year statute of limitations

In California, you have 3 years to file wrongful termination lawsuits that arise under the following laws:

  • California Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act (WARN Act),10 which covers mass layoffs, major relocation, or plant closure, and
  • California Labor Code 1102.5.11

You also have 3 years to file an administrative complaint for violations of the California Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA).12

About the Author

How long do you have to file a wrongful termination lawsuit? (2)

Neil Shouse

A former Los Angeles prosecutor, attorney Neil Shouse graduated with honors from UC Berkeley and Harvard Law School (and completed additional graduate studies at MIT). He has been featured on CNN, Good Morning America, Dr Phil, The Today Show and Court TV. Mr Shouse has been recognized by the National Trial Lawyers as one of the Top 100 Criminal and Top 100 Civil Attorneys.

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