Taking Matters into Your Own Hands: How to Represent Yourself after a Wrongful Termination
For one reason or another, you cannot always obtain a lawyer to represent you if you believe that you have been wrongfully terminated. You might be tempted to file a lawsuit in court and represent yourself. However, before you navigate a lawsuit on your own, consider a less formal option, an agency complaint.
The Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industries (BOLI) (pronounced “bowl-ee”) is a state agency that enforces anti-discrimination laws and anti-retaliation laws in Oregon. Oregon workers who believe they have been unlawfully treated at work can file a complaint with BOLI for free.
How to File a Complaint with BOLI
1. The clock is ticking.
BOLI can only investigate unlawful discrimination and retaliation that occurred within one year from the date you file a complaint.
2. Request your personnel records.
Your personnel records (sometimes called personnel file) will give you the quickest insight into your boss’s version of the events. You can request your records with a simple email or letter to your former human resources department or supervisor. Remember to keep a copy of your request. See a sample request for personnel records.
In Oregon, your employer must give you a certified copy of your personnel records within 45 days of your request, if you request the records within 60 days of your firing. Keep in mind that your employer can destroy your personnel records after 60 days. But if you waited longer than 60 days and your employer did not destroy the records, your employer still has to turn them over within 45 days of your request.
Be forewarned, your boss may charge you for the cost of copying and sending the records (e.g., the cost of copies, the cost of time for employee to copy records, and the cost of postage).
But remember, the clock is ticking. If you are approaching the one year anniversary of your termination, do not wait until you receive your personnel records to file your complaint with BOLI.
3. Gather and organize your evidence.
Keep in mind that your former employer will have a chance to respond to your complaint, so gather as much proof as you can find to support your version of the story.
It is likely that you will soon have a bunch of paper. From the get-go, designate an envelope, folder, or box as the single place where you will keep all of your information relating to your complaint. This process can be very stressful and losing an important document can be devastating. From the beginning, make a plan for keeping all of your papers in one place.
Unlawful treatment is rarely caused by only one event. So gather all the evidence you can about all of the comments, events, or other evidence that show that your firing was not only unfair, but unlawful. Think broadly about anything that will bring credibility to your version of the events – e.g., text messages, emails, social media messages or posts, etc. Talk to former coworkers to see if they can corroborate your version of the events.
Organize your evidence before you start writing so that you can demonstrate the whole picture. Also, keep in mind that the law often allows your former boss to be a jerk, as long as she is an equal-opportunity jerk. Organize your evidence to show that your boss’ conduct was not only unfair, but also unlawful.
4. Fill out the Intake Questionnaire.
If you are not pushing up against the one-year deadline, fill out BOLI’s intake questionnaire and an intake officer will write a formal complaint for you. Be warned, however, that filling out the questionnaire does not count as filing your complaint for purposes of the one-year time limitation.
Cover all Your Bases
Right before question 1, BOLI’s intake questionnaire asks which of the following “unlawful employment practices” you were subjected to. If you believe that you were unlawfully targeted for multiple reasons, include all of those reasons in your BOLI questionnaire. You can check multiple boxes in response to this question. When in doubt, err on the side of checking more boxes rather than less.
Be sure to completely fill out pages 1-4
Pages 1-4 ask critical questions to make sure BOLI has the basic information it needs for an intake officer to draft a complaint for you.
5. Write your Description of the Events.
The BOLI questionnaire provides several small boxes at Question 3 to write a short description of each instance of unlawful treatment. You are allowed to use additional pages, if necessary. If your story is complicated, additional pages will likely be necessary.
Before you fill out the questionnaire with a description of unlawful treatment, write your complete story on a separate sheet of paper that you can edit. After you write your full description of the facts, go back and write a short, 2-3 sentence description on the questionnaire and refer to your additional pages.
Tips for writing your complete story
Write your ugly first draft
Just like any writing, start by flinging your story on the page without worrying about grammar, spelling, etc. (I like to call this the “Ugly First Draft.”) If it helps, start with “Dear Mom” and write your story as you would tell a close friend or relative.
Eliminate extraneous details
Go back over your Ugly First Draft, and take out extraneous details that are not directly related to your claim(s) against your employer. Keep in mind that the clearer you are about what happened to you, the easier it is for the BOLI to figure out if you were discriminated against unlawfully.
Proofread and edit
Once your complete story is on paper, go back and edit for spelling, grammar, etc. Also, try to match up your evidence with your story. For example, if you have an email that corroborates part of your story, next to that part of your story write “(See attached.)” If you have a lot of documents to corroborate your story, considering labeling them as Exhibit 1, Exhibit 2, etc. That will make your story easier to read with the corresponding evidence.
Good (Legal) Story Telling tips
Use consistent terms for people.
Don’t confuse the BOLI investigator with first names. Once you introduce a person in your story, use only the person’s last name going forward. For example:
Jane Wynne (Wynne) was my supervisor for eighteen months. During this period of time, Wynne frequently picked on me for being a Muslim.”
Use consistent names for locations.
For example, if your employer has multiple locations, identify them once, and then put a phrase you will use for that location going forward in parenthesis. For example:
Mondays through Wednesdays I typically worked at the GAP store at the Greenbauer Mall (Mall Store). On weekends I worked at the airport GAP store (Airport Store). But on this particular Saturday, I was assigned to work at the Mall Store…
Use specific dates whenever you have them.
If you have specific dates for events, include the dates. If you don’t have a specific date, but you know an approximate date, write “…on or about [DATE].”
Use simple language.
If you are writing your story without a lawyer, do not try to sound like a lawyer. BOLI is accustomed to reading information from non-lawyers, so do not use legal jargon or try to sound like Matlock.
Your case may come down to he-said-she-said. When key facts are disputed, the BOLI investigator is looking for credibility. If you exaggerate a fact that your boss can easily disprove, your credibility is damaged in the long run.
Now write your short description on the questionnaire.
After you have your complete description of the events on a separate paper, go back and write the short description on Question 6. Try to boil the events down to 2-3 sentences. Your first sentence should be a simple and bold statement of the discrimination. For example:
ABC Co. fired me on March 2, 2015 because I am pregnant. Before I announced my pregnancy on Feb., 19th, 2015, I was a highly praised employee and always received excellent performance evaluations. As soon as I announced my pregnancy, my boss began to criticize my performance, ultimately leading to my firing on March 2. (See attached for more).
6. Supplemental Sections of the Questionnaire
If one of the reasons your termination was unlawful is because of disability discrimination, medical leave, crime victims leave, or veterans preference in public employment (not private), then you must complete additional questions beyond your description of the events.
7. Submit your Questionnaire
After you complete the BOLI questionnaire , mail or fax it to the Intake Office in Portland (even if you live or work outside of Portland):
Bureau of Labor and Industries
800 NE Oregon Street
Portland, OR 97232-2180
If you live near one of BOLI’s filed offices and want to drop it off in person, you may do so. Your local field office will forward it to the Intake Office in Portland.
1400 Executive Parkway
Eugene OR 97401
3865 Wolverine St., NE, Bldg. E-1
Salem, OR 97305
119 N. Oakdale Ave.
Medford, OR 97501
1327 SE 3rd St.
Pendleton, OR 97801
Remember, submitting your questionnaire is not the same as filing your complaint, and you only have one year form the date of your termination to file your complaint.
8. Review and Approve the Complaint and File
Based on your complaint, an intake officer with BOLI will write a formal complaint and mail it to you. Review it carefully. Make sure it accurately represents your story. If changes are needed, contact the Intake Office in Portland (even if you live or work outside of Portland). The phone number is 971-673-0761.
Once the complaint is accurate, DO NOT SIGN IT. You must sign it in the presence of a notary. Return the signed and notarized complaint to the Intake Office in Portland by dropping it off, faxing it, or mailing it. (See step 7 for the address and fax number.)
The day BOLI receives your signed and properly notarized complaint is your complaint’s official filing date.
9. What next?
After your complaint is filed, notice of the filing and a copy of the complaint will be sent to you and your former employer. The complaint is a public record once it is filed. A BOLI investigator will contact you to request documents and conduct an interview. You will be notified once the investigator makes a decision on your case.
Remember, BOLI investigators are neutral fact finders, and they cannot offer legal advice or recommend specific attorneys. You are not required to have an attorney, but you are allowed to hire one.
This website contains legal information, but not legal advice. We recommend you consult a lawyer if you want professional assurance that our information, and your interpretation of it, is appropriate to your particular situation. If you have a union, your union contract may give you additional rights. Ask a shop steward or representative if you have questions about your rights.