One Year or Four Years? Understanding the Statute of Limitations for Employment Discrimination Lawsuits in Florida
When a Florida worker believes they have been the victim of illegal discrimination in the workplace, the law requires they first file an administrative complaint, either with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) or the Florida Commission on Human Relations (FCHR). When the FCHR receives a complaint, it then has 180 days to investigate the employee’s allegations and determine if “reasonable cause” exists to support a discrimination charge.
If for some reason the FCHR fails to act within the 180-day time limit, then the worker may proceed with their lawsuit in court. The agency’s failure to issue a determination effectively functions as a finding of reasonable cause in this scenario. However, the employee must still file their lawsuit within the applicable statute of limitations.
FCHR’s Failure to Make Determination Triggered “Exception” to One-Year Rule
So what is the applicable statute of limitations? Under the Florida Civil Rights Act (FCRA), employment discrimination lawsuits must normally be filed within 1 year of the FCHR’s determination of reasonable cause. But in 2000, the Florida Supreme Court carved out an exception for cases where the FCHR failed to make a determination within 180 days, as opposed to affirmatively issuing a determination.
This exception came up in a recent Florida appeals court case, Hines v. Whataburger Restaurants LLC. The plaintiff in this case worked at a Whataburger restaurant for approximately two years before she was fired. The plaintiff subsequently filed a discrimination complaint with the FCHR. After the 180-day investigation expired without any formal determination from the FCHR, the plaintiff elected to withdraw her complaint and sue Whataburger directly.
The plaintiff filed her lawsuit about two-and-a-half years after withdrawing her administrative complaint. Whataburger moved to dismiss the case, citing the FCRA’s one-year statute of limitations. The trial court agreed with Whataburger’s reading of the law and dismissed the case.
On appeal, the Florida First District Court of Appeal reversed. It explained that the plaintiff’s case fell within that “exception,” which basically states when the FCHR fails to make a determination of reasonable cause within 180 days of receiving a complaint, the person who filed the complaint can proceed with a lawsuit within the statute of limitations applicable to general statutory violations–which in Florida is 4 years.
Whataburger insisted the one-year FCRA statute of limitations still applied, largely based on rulings from federal courts applying Florida law. The First District said these federal cases involved different factual scenarios, and in any event those rulings were not binding on Florida state courts.
Do You Need Help Dealing with an FCHR Investigation?
If you are a company facing a Charge of Discrimination and need legal assistance or an employee trying to navigate the FCHR or EEOC process, please contact an experienced Florida employment law attorney right away.