Statute of Limitations on Civil Rights Violations

January 31, 2023

The laws of the United States grant fundamental freedoms and protections to all American citizens. These rights, known as civil rights, include equal protection under the law and due process. Civil rights have expanded over the years and are present at the local, state, and federal levels of government.

Despite their importance, many people have been victims of civil rights violations. A violation of your civil rights can occur from a fellow citizen, an employer, or a public official. Some examples of civil rights violations include discrimination against persons with disabilities, sexual harassment, and wrongful conviction.

You may have a legal claim if you have suffered a civil rights violation. However, understanding the statute of limitations on civil rights violations is crucial for the success of your case.

What Is a Statute of Limitations?

A statute of limitations places a time limit on when a party may initiate a lawsuit. Depending on the type of claim and jurisdiction, statutes of limitations have wide variance. Some causes of action have additional requirements, such as filing a claim with a government agency within a certain period before filing suit.

Failing to adhere to an applicable statute of limitations can lead to barred claims and victims being unable to receive remedies for their damages. For this reason, you should contact an attorney immediately if you want to pursue legal action. 

Understanding the Statute of Limitations Under Civil Rights Laws

The civil rights violation statute of limitations can be complicated to determine. Unlike some other types of claims, many factors can affect the time a plaintiff has to file a civil rights claim. These factors include the type of claim, the jurisdiction, and the requirements to take legal action. 

Type of Claim

The statute of limitations for your civil rights violation will depend on the type of claim you want to file. 

If a government official violates one of your constitutional rights, you can file a Section 1983 lawsuit. For example, you can bring a Section 1983 claim when a local police officer violates your Fourth Amendment rights by arresting you without probable cause. Although there is no specific statute of violations for these claims, courts must apply the one from the most analogous state law (generally three years). 

The federal government enacted the Civil Rights Act of 1991 to protect job applicants and employees from discrimination based on race, sexual orientation, religion, color, or national origin. If you have an eligible workplace discrimination claim, you have four years from the date of the violation to file a suit.

The statute of limitations for different civil rights claims can sometimes vary at the state level. For example, in Pennsylvania, you have:

  • Two years to file a court claim if your complaint for workplace discrimination with the Pennsylvania Human Resources Commission (PHRC) is dismissed
  • Two years to file a sexual assault claim if you were over 18 at the time of the incident or 12 years after turning 18 if you were under 18 at the time of the abuse
  • Two years to file a lawsuit for wrongful conviction due to official misconduct

State Jurisdiction

The time you have to file a civil rights lawsuit depends on the applicable jurisdiction. Every state has laws encompassing civil rights claims, and the statute of limitations can vary significantly for the same violation. Some examples of different statutes of limitations for common civil rights violations include:

  • Employment discrimination: One year in California versus 300 days in Illinois
  • Sexual assault (for adults): Four years in Nebraska versus one year in Kentucky
  • False imprisonment: Two years in Virginia versus one year in Arizona
  • State jurisdiction remains relevant for some federal statute of limitations civil rights. As mentioned earlier, the statute of limitations for a Section 1983 claim will depend on the appropriate state law that governs the claim. For example, if you want to file a Section 1983 lawsuit against a Pennsylvania police officer for excessive force resulting in physical and emotional harm, the statute of limitations would be two years.

Requirements to Take Legal Action

Depending on the type of claim and the jurisdiction, you may have to fulfill requirements before filing your civil action. These requirements can impact the statute of limitations for your civil rights claim. 

Many states require employees with workplace discrimination claims to file a claim with a government employment agency before seeking redress in the courts. In Pennsylvania, workers can file discrimination claims with the PHRC or the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). Employees have 180 days from the violation to file their claim with the PHRC, while the filing deadline for the EEOC is generally 300 days. 

How Are Damages Calculated in Civil Rights Lawsuits?

If a court determines that you were the victim of a civil rights violation, you may be entitled to recover damages from the defendant. The types of damages available in a civil rights lawsuit include compensatory damages, punitive damages, and injunctive relief. 

Compensatory damages, also known as monetary damages, cover the actual economic losses from the violation. These damages can include compensation for:

  • Medical expenses
  • Lost wages
  • Pain and suffering
  • Attorney's fees

In some cases, punitive damages can also be recovered by the victim. Punitive damages are additional compensatory damages that punish the defendant for committing the violation. These damages are recoverable where the wrongdoer acted with malice or reckless indifference to the plaintiff's rights. 

Defendants in civil rights lawsuits often use immunities as a defense against the plaintiff's claims. The most common immunity defense is qualified immunity. Qualified immunity is given to officials like police officers if they acted reasonably under the circumstances and did not violate the victim's civil rights. 

Our Civil Rights Attorneys Have Your Best Interest

If you have been the victim of a civil rights violation, you must act quickly and consult a civil rights attorney to ensure your claim falls within the period of a civil rights statute of limitations. At McEldrew Purtell, our experienced civil rights lawyers can help you receive the compensation you deserve and restore your dignity. Contact us today for a free consultation to discuss your case.