The California Department of Fair Employment and Housing (“DFEH”) is a state government agency that is responsible for protecting residents from unlawful discrimination in the employment, public accommodations, and housing sectors. They also address crimes involving hate violence and human trafficking.

One of the main duties that the DFEH is tasked with is overseeing discrimination complaints. A DFEH complaint occurs when someone files a discrimination complaint with the department. The DFEH will then decide whether to accept the case, and if so, will investigate the matter and attempt to resolve it. In some cases, the DFEH may take legal action against the offending party instead. 

In addition, California’s civil rights laws also authorize the DFEH to enforce various laws, mediate and resolve disputes concerning civil rights issues. They also provide necessary training on relevant material to business establishments, employers, housing groups, and so forth. 

What Does the DFEH Cover?

As discussed above, the DFEH primarily handles complaints filed against discriminatory actors in the areas of employment, housing, and public accommodations. Its main goals are to protect California residents from unlawful discrimination, to enforce state civil rights laws, and to minimize and eventually abolish discriminatory conduct that occurs in these significant areas of an individual’s life. 

Specifically, the DFEH covers the following:

  • Employment discrimination: This includes everything from hiring, promoting, and terminating employees to discriminatory job listings and ensuring safe working conditions. 
  • Housing discrimination: The DFEH investigates violations of anti-discrimination laws, such as when a landlord refuses to rent or sell property to a particular group of people, a person is denied a loan solely based on their race, or if a person is forced to do sexual favors in exchange for housing rights or to obtain housing privileges. 
  • Business establishment discrimination: Businesses (e.g., theaters, hospitals, salons, etc.) in California are prohibited from discriminating against protected classes of people. For instance, a hotel cannot charge a guest more than the usual rate simply because of their sexual orientation. 
  • Discrimination involving state funded programs: The DFEH is responsible for enforcing laws that make it illegal for state programs or recipients who receive state funding to discriminate against protected persons. For example, a state law requires that every state contract and/or subcontract that involves public works, goods, or services, must contain a nondiscrimination clause. 
  • Hate violence: The DFEH is also responsible for enforcing California’s Ralph Civil Rights Act. Under this Act, individuals who possess certain characteristics are protected from hate violence or threat violence and can sue for related damages. 
  • Human trafficking: The DFEH investigates some complaints involving human trafficking. If the department finds an individual was a victim of a certain crime and they meet all other qualifications, they may issue the victim a T or U visa depending on the case.

What Types of Legal Issues Does the DFEH Address?

The majority of legal issues that the DFEH oversees typically involve employment or housing violations. Some other specific legal issues and disputes that the DFEH may handle include:

  • Sexual harassment;
  • Employment retaliation;
  • Intimidation and hate crimes;
  • Human trafficking; 
  • Denial of medical or family leave;
  • Discriminatory acts committed by businesses services (e.g., hotels, restaurants, retail stores, etc.); 
  • Failure to provide reasonable accommodations to individuals with disabilities; and
  • Failure to provide required private or public access to individuals with disabilities. 

Should I File with the DFEH or the EEOC?

The DFEH and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) are two separate government agencies that oversee the same types of claims. Both agencies also use similar procedures to process and investigate such claims. However, the EEOC is a federal agency, which means it can only handle claims that fall under federal law. 

In contrast, the DFEH is a California state agency and thus it is allowed to review claims that are affected by both federal and state laws. This is an important factor to keep in mind when filing a claim because oftentimes federal law pales in comparison to the kinds of protections that California state law offers its residents.

For example, federal discrimination laws only provide protections for the standard protected classes, such as race, origin, sex, age, religion, disability, and so on. On the other hand, California state laws add an extra layer of protection against discrimination by incorporating more groups of people. For instance, California prohibits discrimination based on a person’s gender identity, sexual orientation, gender expression, and/or marital status.

Another factor to consider when deciding whether to file an employment discrimination complaint with the EEOC or the DFEH is the number of employees that work for an employer. The EEOC will only investigate an employment discrimination matter if the employer has 15 or more employees. To initiate the DFEH investigation process, however, the employer needs to employ just five employees and only one employee if the complaint involves harassment.

Before 2020, individuals used to have less time to file a complaint with DFEH, making the EEOC the better option for complaints that fell under federal jurisdiction and could no longer be filed with the DFEH due to the expiration date.

Now, however, the DFEH is undoubtedly the better agency to file with if a complainant meets the necessary requirements and is permitted to file the complaint with the DFEH. As of 2020, California state law has extended the time a complainant has to file from one to three years. 

As is evident from the above discussion, if it is possible to file with the DFEH, then a California resident should take advantage of the additional protections offered by state law and enforced by the DFEH. 

What Types of Remedies Are Involved in a DFEH Claim? 

There are a number of remedies that an individual can receive when filing a complaint with the DFEH. The final remedy chosen will depend on the facts of the complaint that was filed and whether the issue was resolved by the DFEH or in court. In general, some common types of remedies that may be issued as a result of bringing a successful DFEH claim include: 

  • An injunction or order that prohibits the wrongful conduct from continuing;
  • Access to a specific job opportunity or particular housing; 
  • Reimbursement of out-of-pocket expenses; 
  • An order or instructions that require a company to train its employees or update its anti-discrimination policies;
  • Installment of reasonable accommodations or access for persons with disabilities; and/or
  • Various sorts of damages (e.g., monetary damages, punitive damages, civil penalties, etc.).

Do I Need a Lawyer for Help With Filing a California DFEH Claim?

DFEH procedures can sometimes be difficult to understand without the help of a lawyer. This is especially true when there are complex issues involved that require the interpretation of multiple regulations. Thus, if you have been subjected to an instance of discrimination, harassment, or retaliation, you should consider hiring a local California lawyer for further assistance with your matter.

Your lawyer can evaluate your claim, help you to prepare and file the necessary paperwork with the DFEH, and gather important physical evidence. Your lawyer can also help you depose witnesses as well as can provide representation during administrative hearings.

In addition, if the DFEH does not successfully resolve your issue, your lawyer can also provide advice regarding your legal options, discuss how local laws may affect the outcome if you decide to bring a case, and can assist you in taking legal action against the person or entity who caused you harm.