Legal dictionaries define the statute of limitations as specified time periods allotted for filing certain types of lawsuits. Each type of legal action has a specific time period that must be observed for filing. Beyond this time period, the time for filing a claim passes and the time for filing could expire indefinitely. After the statute of limitations has run on a case, in most instances, an aggrieved individual is barred from bringing a future claim.
Federal statute of limitations provisions outline the limitations for suits filed in federal courts. For
state laws, statute of limitations provisions vary by state and according to the type of case or claim. In California, the statute of limitations for wrongful termination claims varies depending on the type of lawsuit filed.
Wrongful Termination in Violation of Public Policy
California state law restricts the amount of time to file a wrongful termination lawsuit to two years after the date of the termination took place when there is a violation of public policy. Violations of public policy relate back to the fact that California is an at-will employment state. This means that an employer has the right to terminate an employee for any reason at any time unless there is a violation of public policy or a violation of law such as laws that protect employees from discrimination or harassment.
Wrongful Termination as a Result of Discrimination, Harassment
A discriminatory wrongful termination claim can be filed under two types of law. The first is federal law such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The other is state law, in particular, California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA). Both laws have provisions set aside which outline specific statutes of limitations.
Under Title VII, and other federal anti-discrimination laws, the general rule is that an employee has 180 days from the date of termination to file a charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). This begins an investigation process which could lead to a Notice-of-Right-To-Sue, which allows employees to bring civil actions in court.
The 180-day general rule holds true unless there is a state or local government agency available for employees to turn to. In California, this agency is the Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH). When a federal charge is filed with DFEH, the statute of limitations for wrongful termination cases is 300 days after the date of termination. So Californians have 300 days to file a charge with the DFEH for wrongful termination cases as a result of discrimination.
If the EEOC or state agency does not resolve the charge, it issues a notice of right to sue. After this, the employee has 90 days to file a civil action in a court of law.
However, an employer has the choice of filing under Title VII (federal law) or the Fair Housing and Employment Act (state law). If the employee files a charge under the FEHA the statute of limitations is different from the limitations outlined in federal law. Under the FEHA, an employee has one year to file a charge of wrongful termination based on discriminatory acts. The charge is filed with the Department of Fair Employment and Housing, and if the Department does not resolve the case it issues a notice of right to sue. In this instance, an employee has one year to file a suit in court after the right to sue notice is issued.
Thus under federal law, for Californians, a wrongful termination charge based on discriminatory acts must be filed within 300 days of the date of termination, and a claim filed in a court of law should be filed no later than 90 days of the date a right to sue notice issued. However, if the employee chooses to file a charge under state law, the limit is one year after the date of termination to file a charge, and one year after the date the right to sue notice is issued for filing a claim in a court of law.
Wrongful Termination as a Breach of Written or Implied Contract
Sometimes, wrongful termination is based on violations of a written or implied contract. In these instances, the statute of limitations for a wrongful termination case in California is slightly different from time limitations for terminations based on discrimination.
When a written employment contract is in place and the termination violates one of the provisions therein, an employee has four years to file a claim of wrongful termination. The four years will begin from the date that the breach occurred rather than from the date of termination.
However, if the employment contract is implied because of a laws or facts based on the actions and behavior of the employer and employee, the statute of limitations is two years from the date of the breach.
Wrongful Termination as a Form of Defamation or Fraud
At times, the cause alleged for a wrongful termination case is defamation or fraud. In these cases the individual laws for these causes of action control the time period allotted for filing a claim.
For defamation, the statute of limitations is generally one year from the date of libel or slander. For fraudulent terminations, an employee has three years to file a claim based on the date he or she discovered the fraud.
What does it mean with the statute of limitations is ‘tolled’?
Only suspension of a statute of limitations, or tolling, can extend the amount of time an aggrieved individual has to file a complaint or charge. Once the statute of limitations is tolled for any particular cause of action, the plaintiff is allowed more time to file even if he or she has already missed the initial deadline.
Equitable tolling can sometimes occur in wrongful termination cases. Equitable tolling describes a situation in which an aggrieved individual, despite his or her best efforts and diligence, is not able to meet the requirements of the statute of limitations for a cause of action due to circumstances beyond his or her control. However, courts have ruled that equitable tolling should be used very sparingly.
The Statute of Limitations for California Wrongful Termination Claims
There is no standard statute of limitations for wrongful termination claims in California. Rather, the statute of limitations varies depending on the type of law an employee chooses to use in order to bring a cause of action in a court of law. It is important to find competent and experienced attorneys who are well aware of the nuances involved in observing statutes of limitations provisions so that your wrongful termination case can be filed on time and without procedural error.