How to Sue for Unpaid Wages

Three Parts:Preparing to SueFiling a Complaint with a Government Labor CommissionFiling a Civil Case

If you have not been paid for all of the hours that you have worked, or were not paid the appropriate minimum wage or overtime rate, then you may sue for unpaid wages. Both state and federal laws provide the minimum rate at which you must be paid, and your employer may be violating the law if you aren’t being paid the correct rate.

Part 1
Preparing to Sue

  1. Image titled Announce Your Retirement Step 1
    Understand the federal laws regarding wages. The federal government has set minimum wage standards that are applicable throughout the entire country. Although your state or municipality could provide greater benefits, they cannot provide less than the federal amount.
    • Minimum wage. The current federal minimum wage is $7.25 an hour.[1] The wage applies to all but certain categories of employees, such as farm workers on small farms, employees at seasonal and recreational establishments, and executives or administrative professionals paid on a salary basis.[2]
    • Overtime pay. Federal law requires that employees be paid “premium pay” at 1.5 their base rate of pay for any hours worked in excess of 40 during a workweek. There are certain exemptions for the overtime rules as well. Exemptions for both the minimum wage and overtime pay laws can be found on the Department of Labor’s website at
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    Find your state laws. Your state has the option of providing a greater minimum wage or increasing the situations in which you must be paid overtime. Your state’s laws can be found by visiting the Department of Labor’s website at
    • Minimum wage. Some states have set a minimum wage at a higher level than the federal government. For example, Alaska has a minimum wage of $8.75 an hour, while Oregon has a minimum wage of $9.25.[3]
    • Overtime. Some states, like California and Nevada, require overtime pay for hours worked in excess of eight a day. Accordingly, if you worked 10 hours in one day, then two of those hours must be compensated at premium pay—regardless of whether you worked more than 40 hours in a week. California also requires double pay (200% your base rate) for hours in excess of 12 a day.[4]
      • Furthermore, California requires overtime if you work seven consecutive days. In California, you must be paid time and half (150%) for the first eight hours worked on the seventh day.[5]
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    Calculate what you should have been paid. After you figure out what wage laws apply to your situation, then you can calculate how much you should have been paid. You should calculate lost wages per work week, since it will be easier to calculate that way.
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    Gather documentation. To bring a successful suit, you need evidence of how much you have been paid. You should collect your:
    • pay stubs
    • bank statements (if you have direct deposit)
    • any communications with your employer regarding pay
    • employment contract (if applicable)
  5. Image titled Notarize a Document Step 4
    Send a demand letter. A demand letter will inform your employer of how much wages you are owed. The letter should inform your employer that if you are not paid, then you will need to bring suit.[6] Writing a demand letter can be helpful in a lawsuit, because it is proof that your employer had notice of the wage violation.
    • A sample demand letter is available from the Louisiana Law Help website.[7].
    • Be sure to keep a copy of any letter that you send, and be sure to send the letter certified mail, return receipt requested. This way, you can show that the letter was actually received.

Part 2
Filing a Complaint with a Government Labor Commission

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    File a complaint with the federal government. To file a wage claim with the Department of Labor (DOL), you can call 1-866-487-9243 or contact your local DOL office. To find the nearest office, check the DOL map at When you file your complaint, be prepared to provide the following:[8]
    • your contact information (name, address, and phone number)
    • name of the employer who didn’t pay you
    • the employer’s contact information (phone number and address)
    • names of the manager or owner
    • type of work that you did
    • how and when you were paid (cash or check, every Friday or once a month, etc.)
  2. Image titled Be a Secret Agent Step 9
    File a complaint with your state agency. You may also file a complaint with your state agency if your employer violated your state wage laws. To find your state, use the contact list created by the DOL, available at
    • The process for filing a complaint may vary from state to state. However, many state agencies have printed “fill in the blank” wage claim forms for you to complete. The Arkansas form is available from its state Department of Labor.[9] In Texas, employees can fill out a Wage Claim form available from the Texas Workforce Commission.[10]
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    Await the results of the investigation. The state or federal agency should investigate the wage claim dispute. Typically, the investigation begins by mailing a copy of the wage claim to the employer and asking for a response.[11]
    • In some states, the investigator will issue a preliminary decision about the claim. This claim will become final unless the losing party appeals within a set amount of time. In Texas, the party has 21 days to object.[12]
  4. Image titled Apply for Child Support Step 8
    Participate in settlement talks. You may also be invited to participate in settlement talks. In some states, like California, you will receive a notice from the labor commissioner informing you of the date and time of a settlement conference. At the conference, you will have the opportunity to discuss your claim and potentially settle the matter with your employer.[13]
    • Take copies of any document that supports your claim (not originals). However, you do not have to bring copies of any documents already submitted.[14]
  5. Image titled Apply for Child Support Step 21
    Prepare for a hearing. If your claim has merit, and you cannot resolve the dispute informally through settlement negotiations, then you will be scheduled for a hearing. You should receive instructions on what to bring to the hearing. Generally, you will need to bring anything that can support your claim. Specifically, you will want:[15]
    • documentation of what you have been paid
    • witness testimony, if applicable
    • your own testimony
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    Attend the hearing. At the hearing, each side should be able to present evidence. The presiding judge or officer also may have a few questions.[16] You should be organized in your presentation: outline the points you want to make and listen closely to what your employer says. You must respond directly to the points made by your employer.
    • In Texas, hearings are held over the phone. If you have witnesses, you must give them the phone number to call into.[17]
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    Receive a decision. The administrative law judge who hears the case will make a decision on the merits. The decision will probably be mailed to you.[18] If you lose, then you may have the ability to appeal. You should be informed in the letter of how to appeal.

Part 3
Filing a Civil Case

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    Check if you can file a civil suit. Your state may allow you to choose between filing a civil suit in court or bringing an action with your state’s Department of Labor. Alternately, some states may require that you file a wage complaint with your state agency and then request a “right to sue” letter. In Massachusetts, you can request this letter if you do not want to wait 90 days after filing your complaint with the state to bring a lawsuit.[19]
    • Also check if you can sue in small claims courts. These courts are set up to handle disputes with a small dollar amount. For example, in San Diego County, California you can file a suit in a small claims court if your claim is worth $5,000 or less.[20]
    • Typically, you have the option of filing in small claims court but are not required to do so. You should research what limitations suing in small claims court will impose on you. For example, in many small claims courts you cannot be represented by an attorney. Also, in some courts you cannot appeal if the defendant wins.
  2. Image titled Prepare for a Job Interview Step 2
    Meet with a lawyer. To find out if small claims court is right for you, you might want to meet with an experienced employment attorney. An attorney can advise you on a variety of issues and can even represent you should you choose to proceed in civil court. You can schedule an initial consultation to discuss your case.
    • To find a qualified employment lawyer, see wikiHow’s Find an Employment Lawyer.
    • Some attorneys now offer consultations either for free or for a reduced fee. Call ahead and ask about how long the consultation will last and the cost.
    • Be aware that if you win your court case, you can be compensated for attorney’s fees.[21] You should give serious thought to hiring a lawyer to help guide you through the litigation process as your attorney’s fees will be paid by your employer should you win.
  3. Image titled Become a Strength and Conditioning Coach Step 5
    Draft a complaint. You will start a lawsuit by filing a document called a complaint. The complaint will lay out the facts as you allege them and request relief from the court.
    • Your courthouse may have printed “fill in the blank” forms for you to use, especially if you are filing in small claims court.[22] Check with your court clerk to see if a form is available.
    • If no form is available, then you can have your attorney draft a complaint.
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    File the complaint. Once you have completed the complaint, you need to take it the court clerk and ask to file it. You will probably have to pay a filing fee, which varies from court to court. If you cannot afford the fee, ask the clerk for a fee waiver form.
    • Have the clerk date-stamp all copies that you have made of the complaint. You will need one copy to serve on your employer.
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    Serve notice on your employer. You will need to notify your employer of the filed lawsuit. You do this by providing notice of your complaint along with a summons (or citation). Notice may be served in a variety of ways, which will depend on the court. Ask the court clerk for what are acceptable methods of service. Typically, you can make service in the following ways:
    • By mail. Sometimes you can serve notice by having someone mail a copy of the complaint and the summons to the defendant. The documents should be sent by certified mail, return receipt requested.
    • Personal service by the sheriff or a process server. You can also have the documents served by someone over 18 who is not a party to the case. This person could be the county sheriff or a professional process server. It may also be a friend or relative. If you use the sheriff or a process server, you will have to pay a fee, which typically ranges from $45-75 per service.[23]
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    File proof of service with the court. Whoever serves the defendant will need to fill out a “Proof of Service” or “Affidavit of Service” form, which you can get from your court clerk. After the server fills it out, it will be returned to you. You must then file it with the court.[24]
    • Keep a copy of all documents that you file, including the Proof of Service. Be sure to take a date-stamped copy to your court hearing.
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    Await the answer. Your employer will have a set amount of time to answer your complaint, typically 21 or 30 days. Your employer also has the option of simply paying you the money that you are owed. If you are paid the money that you are owed, then you can ask the court clerk how to withdraw your lawsuit.
  8. Image titled Change Your Name in Texas Step 12
    Attend the trial. At the trial, each side will present evidence in support of their claims. The typical components of a trial include:
    • An opening statement. Your attorney will deliver a short opening statement, which will provide a roadmap of what evidence he or she will present. If you are in small claims court, then you will simply deliver this statement yourself.
    • Presentation of witnesses. As the plaintiff bringing the suit for unpaid wages, you should be prepared to testify. You will be cross-examined by your employer’s attorney. If you are in small claims court, then you can expect the judge to do most of the questioning.
    • Closing argument. Your attorney will weave all of the evidence together and explain to the judge why you are entitled to the wages that you claim were unpaid.


  • Don’t wait to pursue lost wages. State and federal laws tend to have strict deadlines. You should reach out to the DOL or your state agency as soon as you realize the violation and your employer refuses to remedy it.

Sources and Citations

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Categories: Legal Matters | Workplace Conflicts Coping and Issues