As an employer, you may be used to cases moving quickly through the EEOC and on to court. That’s because employees must file EEOC complaints within 300 days of the alleged discrimination. They then have 90 days after the EEOC dismisses the complaint to file a federal lawsuit.
But black employees can also file a lawsuit under another section of the Civil Rights Act—a so-called Section 1983 case—if they have been denied their civil rights by the government.
Such cases don’t have to go through the EEOC. They must be filed within the state’s statute of limitations for personal injury claims. In Florida, that means the lawsuit has to be filed within four years of the alleged injury.
Recent case: Robert Lewis, who is black, worked as a laborer for a Gainesville tree service company. The company had a contract with Gainesville Regional Utilities, a government agency, which sent an inspector to the job site. Lewis complained often to his supervisors about racial jokes he said the inspector made.
One day, while Lewis was working in a ditch, the inspector allegedly came up behind him, put a noose around his neck and threatened to hang him from an oak tree. Lewis complained again, but nothing happened.
Lewis filed an EEOC complaint, which the agency held for about eight years. Finally, Lewis filed a Section 1983 action, alleging that the noose incident was racially motivated and caused him emotional injury.
The 11th Circuit Court of Appeals dismissed the case because Lewis should have filed it within four years. (Lewis v. Asplundh Tree Expert, et al., No. 08-1177, 11th Cir., 2008)
Final note: To understand the implication of a noose in the workplace, consider that between 1882 and 1968, 3,446 black Americans died at the hands of lynch mobs. Billie Holiday’s classic song “Strange Fruit” tells the story of a lynching; the “strange fruit” are bodies hanging in the trees. James Baldwin’s classic short story, “Going to See the Man,” tells in graphic detail the story of a lynching. These are the images that many blacks carry with them and why a noose is such a disturbing symbol.
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