The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) is the federal agency responsible for handling claims of workplace discrimination, including those related to age. Since 2008, the agency has received between 23,000 and 25,000 claims of age discrimination every year. Federal law protects against age-based discrimination when the victim is at least 40 years old and the employer has at least 20 employees. But that doesn’t mean winning an age discrimination lawsuit is easy.

You might be unsure if your treatment in the workplace constitutes age discrimination. You should consider the following questions and be sure to consult with a qualified employment attorney before filing a claim. 

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Have you been a victim of age discrimination?

The federal Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) is the federal law prohibiting employers from engaging in age-based discrimination. Determining whether your mistreatment qualifies as discrimination, however, is an important first step. You may believe, for example, that your employer treats younger coworkers more favorably than 50- and 60-year-old employees. But does this treatment qualify as discrimination?

If your employer simply acts a bit friendlier to younger employees, an age discrimination lawsuit may not go very far. On the other hand, if your employer excludes older employees from opportunities and benefits given to younger employees, such as insurance, retirement plans, fringe benefits, and the opportunity for advancement, an age discrimination lawsuit may be in order.

Can you prove it?

Proving age discrimination can be a difficult, time-consuming task. In just about every case, a skilled employment law attorney is essential to a favorable outcome. Your attorney can help you file an administrative complaint with the EEOC and any applicable state agencies. Once the EEOC has completed its investigation, you will have a small window within which to file a lawsuit, which is generally within 180 days from the date of the offense. From there, you will move to discovery, give a deposition, and your case may go all the way to trial. If both parties agree, mediation is also an option.

According to Hali Anderson, a San Diego-based attorney with GrahamHollis, it’s often a difficult decision to decide whether you want to pursue a claim against your employer because of the stigma attached to filing a lawsuit and the risk inherent in pursuing a claim.

“However, if you think you have been discriminated against by your employer, it’s important to contact an attorney as soon as possible because there are strict timelines by which you must pursue your claim,” Anderson says. “In addition, sometimes you will want to meet with several attorneys before you find the one who is right for you and your case.”

Your time is limited

If you plan to file a lawsuit for age-based discrimination, you must first file a complaint with the EEOC. Once the EEOC has closed its investigation into the matter, the agency will provide you with a Notice of Right to Sue. Upon receiving this notice, you have 90 days within which to file your lawsuit. This is a strict deadline, and if you miss it, you may lose your opportunity to bring a lawsuit.

Although you must file within 90 days of receipt of the Notice of Right to Sue, you don’t necessarily have to wait to receive the notice. If the investigation is taking longer than expected, you can request a Notice of Right to Sue prior to its closure. There are, however, strict guidelines for doing so. For starters, at least 180 days must have passed since you filed your original charge with EEOC. Once that amount of time has passed, EEOC is required by law to give you the notice if you request it.

In certain instances, EEOC may provide the Notice of Right to Sue before 180 days have passed. This is generally only if the agency is certain the investigation will not be closed before 180 days are up. If, however, you want the EEOC to continue its investigation into your charge, avoid requesting the notice prior to its closure.

Bottom line—if you’ve been discriminated against at work, you have rights. Don’t make the mistake of trying to handle workplace discrimination and harassment problems on your own. Age discrimination lawsuits are complex legal issues that require the help of an experienced employment law attorney.