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What is the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing and What Happens After I File a Complaint?


If you live and work in California, you may have questions about the state agencies that handle employment discrimination claims. More specifically, what is the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH)? And if you do file a complaint, what is the process for moving forward once you get the complaint filed? We want to provide some basic information about the Department and about the claims process.

Learning More About the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing 

The DFEH is “the state agency charged with enforcing California’s civil rights laws.” Its specific mission is “to protect the people of California from unlawful discrimination in employment, housing, and publication accommodations, and from hate violence and human trafficking.”

Thinking specifically about discrimination in employment in California, which laws does it enforce? There are numerous civil rights laws in California that the DFEH enforces (as it has been doing since 1980), including the following:

  • Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA);
  • Unruh Civil Rights Act;
  • California Family Rights Act (CFRA);
  • Disabled Persons Act; and
  • Ralph Civil Rights Act.

Under these civil rights laws, the DFEH—which is the largest state civil rights agency in the U.S.—also has the following responsibilities:

  • Conduct public outreach and training for employers and business establishments to ensure they understand their legal responsibilities;
  • Investigate complaints of discrimination;
  • Facilitate mediation and dispute resolution for civil rights issues; and
  • Enforce civil rights laws through prosecution.

Filing a Complaint with the DFEH 

How do you file a complaint with the DFEH  and what happens once you have filed one? If you believe you have been discriminated against by your current employer or by a prospective employer, you can file a complaint with the DFEH. Most claims begin with the employee or prospective employee filling and out filing a pre-complaint inquiry, which must be submitted within one year from the date of discrimination.

What happens once you file a complaint? DFEH is required by law to follow a series of steps in the complaint process, which include the following:

  • Employee files pre-complaint inquiry, and DFEH responds within 60 days by having an investigator contact the employee;
  • DFEH evaluates the facts and determines whether it will investigate the complaint;
  • If DFEH decides to investigate, it will develop a complaint to be delivered to the employer;
  • Employer must respond the complaint, and DFEH reviews the response with the employee;
  • DFEH offers the parties free dispute resolution services;
  • If parties cannot resolve the complaint, DFEH continues its investigation to determine if a violation of state law occurred;
  • If DFEH determines there was no violation of California state law, it will close the complaint, but if it does determine there were probable violations of the law, then the case will go to the Legal Division of DFEH;
  • Once the case goes to the Legal Division, the parties must attend mediation;
  • If mediation does not resolve the case, then DFEH can file a lawsuit against the employer.

How does the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) play a role in DFEH complaints? And what happens when an employee has a dual filing? First, with regard to the EEOC, certain employment discrimination complaints in California will be filed through the federal EEOC instead of through the DFEH. The EEOC handles about 25 percent of employment discrimination complaints in California. For those complaints that are not investigated by the federal agency, it is important to understand how there is a “dual system” in California for employment discrimination claims.

If you have questions about discrimination, harassment, or retaliation in the workplace, or the DFEH or the employment complaint/charge of discrimination process, you should discuss your concerns with a California employment discrimination and retaliation attorney.


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* Cathleen Scott is licensed to practice in Florida only.

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