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Practical Information Filing Claims with Government Agencies

This page provides answers to the following questions:

1. How do I file a claim with a government agency?

2. What information should I include in the complaint?

3. Are there time limits for filing a complaint?

4. Can I file a complaint without revealing my name?

5. How do I know whether to file first with a federal agency or a state agency?

6. Do I have to file a complaint with a government agency before I file a lawsuit?

7. What does the agency do after I have filed my complaint?

8. Can an agency reject my complaint?

9. What should I know about the agency investigation?

10. How will my complaint be resolved by the agency?

11. How long will it take the agency to investigate my complaint?

12. Where can I find more information?

1. How do I file a claim with a government agency?

A claim must generally be made in writing to the federal or state agency. Some agencies, such as the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), require you to mail a charge of discrimination or complete one in person at an EEOC office. Other agencies, such as the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), will accept complaints over the phone, on their website, or via fax, in addition to those written complaints made through the mail or in person at an OSHA office.

2. What information should I include in the complaint?

The general rule is to include all of the details that would enable the agency to determine if you have a claim or the law has been violated. The most basic information to include is:

Your name, address, and telephone number.

The name, address, and telephone number of the employer, employment agency, or union that you wish to file the claim against.

An estimate of the number of employees (or union members), if you know. (Certain laws only apply to employers with a minimum number of employees).

A short description of the facts supporting your complaint that a law has been violated.

The date(s) of the violation(s).

Be sure to follow all directions on the form, and do not leave any requested information blank if you have a way to find out the information before submitting the form.

3. Are there time limits for filing a complaint?

Yes, in most types of cases. It's best to contact any agency soon after the incident you want to complain about occurred. Federal and state agencies have many different time limits for filing based on their respective laws. Some of the federal time limits are:

Department of Labor:

Minimum wage, overtime and other wage and hour claims, Family and Medical Leave Act claims, and Equal Pay Act claims: within 2 years of the alleged violation. You don't need to file a claim with the Department of Labor for violations of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), Family and Medical Leave Act, or Equal Pay Act before you can file a lawsuit in court, as you do with some other federal laws. A lawsuit must also be filed generally within 2 years of the alleged violation, and this deadline does not stop running even if you have filed a claim with the Department of Labor.

Health and safety claims/whistleblower claims with OSHA: The filing dates depend on which law applies:
- OSH Act, the Clean Air Act (CAA), the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA), the Solid Waste Disposal Act (SWDA), the Federal Water Pollution Control Act (FWPCA), the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA), the Toxic Substance Control Act (TSCA), and environmental whistleblower laws: 30 days after the alleged violation occurred.
- International Safety Container Act (ISCA): 60 days after the alleged violation occurred.
- Wendell H. Ford Aviation Investment and Reform Act (AIR 21), the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, and the Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act (AHERA): 90 days after the alleged violation occurred.
- Surface Transportation Assistance Act (STAA), the Energy Reorganization Act (ERA), and the Pipeline Safety Improvement Act (PSIA): 180 days after the alleged violation occurred.


Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC):

Discrimination, harassment and retaliation claims on the basis of race, sex (including pregnancy), color, national origin (including language), religion, age or disability: within 180 days from the date of the discrimination or within 300 days in states that also have a state agency enforcing an anti-discrimination law.


Other federal, state and local laws:

Filing information for other federal and state laws can also be found on the specific page on our website that relates to this topic. If the agency you have questions about is not listed here, please check the specific page in the "your rights" section that relates to your topic for the filing information listed on that page. Since some laws and agencies have filing deadlines that may be as soon as 30 days after a specific incident occurs, it is very important to know the filing deadline applicable to your situation so that you can take action if necessary to protect your rights.

4. Can I file a complaint without revealing my name?

Yes, in some circumstances you can file a complaint without identifying yourself.

If you are complaining about a violation of an OSHA standard or a serious safety or health hazard at work, you can ask that your name not be revealed to your employer. For discrimination complaints about a policy or practice, the EEOC can conduct directed investigations of employers based on information it has learned, even if no individual files a formal charge of discrimination.

However, if you want the agency to take action on your behalf or attempt to settle or resolve a specific claim you have, you will need to reveal your identity and the facts underlying your particular claim.

5. How do I know whether to file first with a federal agency or a state agency?

Many states and localities have their own antidiscrimination and labor standards laws as well as agencies responsible for enforcing those laws. In those states, it is often possible to file a claim either with the state administrative agency, or the federal administrative agency.

6. Do I have to file a complaint with a government agency before I file a lawsuit?

It depends. A federal employment discrimination case cannot be filed in court without first going to the EEOC and having the EEOC dismiss the charge. This process is called "exhaustion" of your administrative remedy.

Under other state and federal laws, exhaustion may not be required before filing a claim in court. However, the administrative agency may be able to help you resolve your complaint so that filing a lawsuit is no longer necessary to get the relief you are seeking and/or provide other valuable assistance.

Because in some cases you may lose your right to pursue any remedy against your employer by not filing with an administrative agency by the appropriate deadline, you should always consult with a lawyer in your state and/or the administrative agency that handles your type of complaint before making the decision not to file with the appropriate administrative agency.

7. What does the agency do after I have filed my complaint?

Typically, the agency notifies the employer that a charge or complaint has been filed against it. The agency may request that the employer file a response to the charge.

The agency then decides what level of investigation it will undertake based on its priorities and the facts alleged in the complaint. For example, a charge may be assigned for priority investigation if the initial facts appear to support a violation of law or if there is imminent danger as in the case of an alleged safety violation. When the evidence is less strong, the charge may be assigned for follow-up investigation to determine whether it is likely that a violation has occurred.

Usually, the investigation begins with an in-depth interview of the complainant (you, as the person who filed the complaint). The agency should also explain to you how the agency's process works.

In investigating a charge, the agency may make written requests for information, interview people, review documents, and, as needed, visit the facility where the alleged violation occurred. When the investigation is complete, the agency should discuss the evidence with the charging party or employer, as appropriate.

8. Can an agency reject my complaint?

The agency must accept your charge or complaint for filing, even if the facts do not appear to fall within the laws that agency enforces. The agency can dismiss a charge or complaint at any point if, in the agency's best judgment, further investigation will not establish a violation of the law enforced by that agency. A charge may be dismissed at the time it is filed, if an initial in-depth interview does not produce evidence to support the claim. When a charge is dismissed, the agency notifies the complainant of the agency's decision and the complainant's right to sue in court.

9. What should I know about the agency investigation?

You have the right to talk privately with an agency investigator or safety inspector. You should reveal all the information you have to assist the investigation by providing documents and the names of witnesses. Make sure you keep a copy of any documents given to the investigator. The investigator should keep your statements confidential. You should contact the investigator on a regular basis to keep track of the progress of the investigation. Your responsibility is to be informative and cooperative to assist in the investigation. An agency can dismiss your charge or complaint if you fail to cooperate or hinder the investigation.

10. How will my complaint be resolved by the agency?

If the agency finds that the evidence obtained in an investigation does not establish a violation of the law, in most situations the agency will dismiss the claim and notify you of its decision and your right to file a lawsuit in court if applicable. If the evidence establishes that the law has been violated, the agency will notify the employer and the charging party or complainant.

In discrimination cases, the EEOC will then attempt to settle the charge by providing a remedy for the discrimination. If the case is successfully conciliated, or if a case has earlier been successfully mediated or settled, neither EEOC nor the charging party may go to court unless the conciliation, mediation, or settlement agreement is not honored.

If EEOC is unable to successfully conciliate the case, the agency will decide whether to bring suit in federal court. If EEOC decides not to sue, it will issue a notice closing the case and giving you as the charging party 90 days in which to file a lawsuit on your own behalf.

11. How long will it take the agency to investigate my complaint?

The length and thoroughness of any investigation will vary considerably depending on the facts, the agency, and the investigator. Some investigations can last months or even years. It's important to know the time limits for filing a lawsuit and whether they continue to run while the agency is investigating your claim, as in Fair Labor Standards Act cases.

In most cases, the federal agency will not issue a finding (often called a "reasonable cause" finding) that a law has been violated. Similarly, federal agencies file lawsuits in only a small portion of the complaints they receive. This does not mean, however, that your lawsuit does not have merit, as many successful lawsuits have been brought without a "reasonable cause" finding by the government and/or without the administrative agency's assistance.

12. Where can I find more information?

You can find out more information for filing a claim with certain federal agencies at the following sites:

Department of Labor:
Fair Labor Standards Act
Family and Medical Leave Act
OSHA complaints
OSHA whistleblower provisions


Equal Employment Opportunity Commission:
EEOC's Charge Processing Procedures


Our site's filing a complaint pages also contain valuable information, tailored to your state, about filing certain types of claims:
filing a discrimination/harassment/retaliation complaint
filing a pay & hours/labor standards complaint
filing an unemployment insurance claim
filing a workers' compensation claim
filing a whistleblower claim
filing a retaliation claim

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