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What is the process if you have faced illegal discrimination?

The California Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH) is a state regulatory agency that fights discrimination in employment, housing and public accommodations. It enforces laws including the Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA), the Unruh Civil Rights Act, the Disabled Persons Act, and the Ralph Civil Rights Act.

If you have experienced unlawful discrimination in these situations, you can file a complaint with the DEFH. Generally, you must file your complaint within a year of when you were harmed, but in employment cases you can still file for up to three years.

The first step is to file an intake form

If you believe you have suffered illegal discrimination, you can file a complaint with the DFEH by filing an intake form using the Cal Civil Rights System, by submitting a printed form available on the DEFH’s website, or by phone at 800-884-1684
(voice), 800-700-2320 (TTY) or California’s Relay Service at 711.

DFEH staff will evaluate your intake form and determine if what you reported is a violation of the law. If the agency determines your complaint does not involve a violation of the law, it has no authority to proceed and will dismiss your complaint. If this has happened to you and you believe it was in error, contact an attorney for help.

Investigation and attempts at settlement

If the DFEH accepts your intake form as describing a legal violation, it will investigate and, if appropriate, file a legal complaint against the person or organization who discriminated against you.

At that point, the DFEH will attempt to negotiate a settlement with the person or organization. This may involve a dispute resolution process, such as mediation. The settlement can involve money to pay for your out-of-pocket losses, to compensate you for emotional distress or, in some cases, to penalize the person or organization. However, many people are just as interested in getting the problem solved through:

  • An injunction that prohibits the unlawful practice
  • Policy changes
  • Required training
  • Reasonable accommodations made
  • Access to the denied housing or job opportunity

If the DFEH is unable to work out a resolution, it can take the person or organization to court. This often involves another attempt at settlement out of court through a dispute resolution process. Ultimately, if your case cannot be settled, a court will decide the matter.

Can I appeal?

Yes. Once the DFEH has notified you of a final decision (called a “closure letter”), you have 10 days to appeal within the DEFH. You may also be able to appeal a court’s decision against the DFEH in your case, although you would generally do this with your own attorney.

Once you have received a closure letter, you may still want to file a lawsuit directly against the person or organization that discriminated against you. This is done with your own attorney, and you should get an attorney and discuss your options right away so you don’t miss the deadline to file.

You can hire a lawyer at any point in the process, including right from the beginning. This may be helpful, as a lawyer can ensure that the complaint forms are filled out properly and that you have submitted sufficient information to support your complaint.