Employment discrimination happens far too often – even in California. Although there are clear federal and state rules barring certain types of workplace discrimination, many employers refuse to follow the law. However, if you have suffered from discrimination at work, you may be able to file a complaint with the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH).
These discrimination complaints must be based on a violation of California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act (“FEHA”). If you choose to file a complaint with DFEH, the agency may investigate the case on your behalf — or issue a right to sue notice, which allows you to file a lawsuit against your employer for discrimination.
The DFEH usually offers an option to filers of asking for an investigation or filing for an “immediate Right to Sue” letter. Notably, the DFEH will almost always issue a Right to Sue letter at the conclusion of their investigation (which could take up to a year or more), which is why it offers the immediate right to sue if you would prefer to retain an attorney and pursue your matter in court (rather than wait for the investigation to finish).
Grounds For Filing A Discrimination Complaint
Under California law, employers are prohibited from engaging in illegal discrimination. California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act, or FEHA, offers greater protections for employees than what is provided under federal law. FEHA’s protections generally apply to employers with 5 or more employees. This law is enforced by DFEH.
Under FEHA, it is unlawful for an employer to discriminate against an individual based on their:
Gender identity or gender expression
Military and veteran status
Complaints or refusal to participate in any of the above discrimination
Discrimination can take many forms. In essence, it means that a person is treated differently due to their protected characteristic or membership in a protected class (as listed above). A person may be discriminated against with respect to their compensation, the terms or privileges of their employment, their work conditions, and their job assignments.
For example, Mary is a trans woman. Before her transition, she worked directly with customers at a hardware store. After her transition, her boss changed her job duties so that she only worked in the back of the store, stocking shelves and performing other menial tasks. In this situation, Mary may have faced unlawful employment discrimination on the basis of her gender identity or gender expression.
If a person has faced any kind of illegal workplace discrimination in California, they may choose to file a complaint with the DFEH, the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), or to obtain an immediate Right to Sue and file a lawsuit. There are a number of procedures to be followed and deadlines to be met for each choice.
The DFEH Complaint Process
If you believe that you have been unlawfully discriminated against at work, you can file a complaint with DFEH. For employment cases, a complaint must be filed within 3 years of the date that you were harmed. For example, if you believe that you were fired because of your age, you will need to file a discrimination complaint with DFEH no later than 3 years after the date of your termination or other discriminatory conduct.
The first step in filing a complaint is to gather information about what happened to you. This should include copies of any documents that support your claim, as well as a written narrative about the discrimination. In the age discrimination example above, you may explain how your supervisor made jokes people about your age being incompetent for months after you turned 60, and then fired you, noting that they needed younger people who understood technology better.
Once you have put this information together, you will need to fill out an intake form. You can do this online, using the Cal Civil Rights System, via mail using a printable intake form, or by calling DFEH.
**Important Note: It is advisable to consult with a discrimination attorney before you submit a complaint to the DFEH. This is important for two reasons: (1) an attorney will be helpful to ensure you complete the form properly and dot no omit any important information, as this may have a substantial affect on your case later. (2) It may be in your best interest to obtain an immediate right to sue rather than ask for an investigation, which an attorney can explain.
After you have submitted your complaint, DFEH will evaluate it and determine whether to accept it for further investigation. There are two possible outcomes at this juncture: (1) the DFEH will decline to investigate further and issue a Right to Sue notice; or (2) the DFEH will accept the case and begin an investigation.
If DFEH does not accept your case, this does not mean that it lacks merit. Instead, it is simply a reflection of DFEH’s workload and budget constraints. An experienced employment lawyer can use that right to sue notice to begin a formal lawsuit against your (ex)employer.
If DFEH accepts your case, you sign a complaint form prepared by the agency. This complaint will be served on your employer, who then has a chance to respond to the allegations. In appropriate cases, DFEH offers free dispute resolution services to help you come to a resolution. If the parties cannot agree to a settlement, then the investigation will continue.
The investigation may result in DFEH finding that no violation of California law occurred, and the complaint being closed. Otherwise, the complaint will move forward, and the parties will go to mediation to try to reach an agreement. If mediation fails, then DFEH may file a lawsuit on your behalf or issue a Right to Sue so that you can do so on your own with an attorney.
Remember: California employment laws are complex, and there are many deadlines that must be met in order to proceed with a claim. If you miss one of these deadlines (known as a statute of limitations), you may not be able to seek justice for the discrimination that you faced. For this reason, it is important to consult with an experienced employment attorney as soon as possible after any violation of the law occurs in the workplace.
Discrimination occurs far too often in workplaces, whether it occurs on the basis of sex, age, sexual orientation, religion, race, or for any other illegal reason. California law provides protections for employees, with options for filing a complaint through DFEH or proceeding to a lawsuit. Share this article with others to spread awareness of employee rights in California!
The information in this blog post (“post”) is provided for general informational purposes only, and may not reflect the current law in your jurisdiction. No information contained in this post should be construed as legal advice from Odell Law, PLC. or the individual author, nor is it intended to be a substitute for legal counsel on any subject matter. No reader of this post should act or refrain from acting on the basis of any information included in, or accessible through, this Post without seeking the appropriate legal or other professional advice on the particular facts and circumstances at issue from a lawyer licensed in the recipient’s state, country or other appropriate licensing jurisdiction.