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  • Sean Cooney

A Beginner’s Guide To The DFEH Administrative Complaint Process

Updated: Jun 17, 2019

What Is The Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH)?

California laws protect against discrimination based on an individual’s membership in one of many protected groups. The California Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH) is the state agency that administers and enforces California’s civil rights laws, including laws related to employment and housing discrimination. The primary law invoked is known as California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act, more commonly referred to as “FEHA”. Although the DFEH investigates claims brought by individuals alleging employment or housing discrimination, the vast majority of the complaints relate to employment matters.

Why Did I Receive a DFEH Complaint?

California's Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA) can be enforced by the DFEH or the court system. This means that an employee with a claim of discrimination may file a complaint with the DFEH or choose to file a civil lawsuit. However, California legislators want to encourage claims to be processed through the DFEH. Under California law, an employee must “exhaust administrative remedies” before they are permitted to file a civil lawsuit alleging employment discrimination. This means the employee must first contact the DFEH to investigate the claim and/or receive a “right to sue” letter issued by the agency.

If you have received a copy of the Complaint, it means the DFEH has interviewed the person who filed the complaint and has completed an initial evaluation of the claim.

What Happens After I Receive A DFEH Complaint?

A response is typically required within 30 days of service of the Complaint. A number of things can happen after the response. The case could be referred to mediation or investigated by the DFEH. The case can then be settled with the filer, closed by the DFEH if no probable violation of the law occurred, or referred to the DFEH legal department for litigation.

What Is The Role Of The DFEH?

The role of the DFEH is complicated. In the initial stages of the investigation, the DFEH acts as a neutral fact finder. Their role is to objectively determine whether there was any probable violation of the law. However, once the DFEH determines that the law was likely violated, the DFEH transitions into a more prosecutorial role. A responding party should cooperate fully with the DFEH, but be mindful of this changing role.

Why Did I Receive A Civil Summons, But No DFEH Complaint Or “Right To Sue” Letter?

An employee filing an employment discrimination lawsuit under California law is required to first contact the DFEH. However, many employees request what is called an “immediate right-to-sue notice.” This means the employee is asking the DFEH to forego its investigation and allow the employee to file a civil lawsuit. The DFEH will conduct a very limited review of the employee's allegations in approving the right-to-sue letter.

If the employee skipped this step and did not request a right-to-sue letter, the lawsuit may be improper and subject to dismissal.

What Are The Timing Requirements Or Statute Of Limitations For Employment Claims?

Employment related claims have several important deadlines under both California and federal law. Parties are well served to contact an attorney to ensure strict compliance with these rules.

For example, the time to file a claim under FEHA is one year from the alleged unlawful conduct. However, this is the deadline to file the administrative complaint with the DFEH, not a civil lawsuit. A party has one year from the issuance of the right-to-sue letter to file a civil lawsuit. To complicate matters further, claims arising under FEHA (a California statute) may also violate federal statutes such as the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) or Title VII Of The Civil Rights Act (Title VII). Claims under federal law have separate reporting requirements to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).

What Is The Difference Between The DFEH and The EEOC?

The DFEH is a state agency tasked with enforcing California’s laws. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) operates at the federal level: it administers and enforces federal laws related to workplace discrimination. Because many claims of discrimination may implicate both state and federal laws, employees often have a choice of whether to submit claims to the DFEH or the EEOC.

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