California Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH) Complaint Process

This section will explain the process for filing a discrimination complaint with the California DFEH (Department of Fair Employment & Housing).[2109]The DFEH complaint process is very similar to the EEOC process, and can even happen at the same time.

Report Discrimination.

The DFEH process begins when you contact the DFEH to report the discrimination and file a “Pre-Complaint Inquiry.” You can do this by mail, by phone, or online:

    Mail: Fill out a Pre-Complaint Inquiry form and mail it to any local DFEH office. A listing of local DFEH offices can be found in Appendix M, PG. 638.[2110]
    Phone: Call the DFEH Communication Center at (800) 884-1684. If you have a hearing impairment, call 800-884-1684 or TTY at (800) 700-2320 for service.
    Online: Use the DFEH’s online system (available at, or email the Pre-Complaint Inquiry form to [email protected].

Filing an Official Complaint.

Within 10 days, a DFEH investigator will contact you to conduct an intake interview, in order to learn more about your situation and the possible discrimination. The investigator will decide whether state and federal civil rights laws cover your situation.

If the DFEH accepts your complaint, the investigator will type up an official complaint for you to sign. If the DFEH does NOT accept your complaint, it does not mean that you weren’t treated unfairly—only that your situation is not covered by the civil rights laws that the DFEH enforces.

Can I go straight to court and file a lawsuit on my own?

Under California law (just like Title VII), you must first file a complaint with DFEH before you can go to court (this is called “exhausting your administrative remedies”).[2111] However, once you file your complaint, you can ask the DFEH for a Right-to-Sue notice right away, which allows you to file a lawsuit in court on your own. Once you receive a Right-to-Sue notice, you have only 1 year to file your lawsuit in court.[2112]

IMPORTANT: If you request a Right-to-Sue notice, the DFEH will close your case and will NOT investigate further (even if you later decide not to file a lawsuit). Therefore, it is recommended that you only request a Right-to-Sue notice if you have a lawyer to represent you in court.[2113]


Employer’s Response.

The DFEH will give a copy of your complaint to the employer. The employer must respond to the complaint, and has the opportunity to voluntarily resolve the problem now or at any time during the rest of the case. The DFEH will also file a copy of your complaint with the EEOC if it looks like Title VII covers your complaint.[2114]


The DFEH will investigate your complaint. The investigation may include conducting interviews with people and gathering documents or other information. The DFEH must complete its investigation within 1 year from the date when you filed your official complaint. Before the DFEH notifies you of the results of the investigation, it will give you and the employer the chance to voluntarily resolve the problem by reaching an agreement through informal negotiations (“mediation” or “conciliation”).

After the Investigation.

Depending on what the DFEH finds during its investigation, this is what will happen next:

    If the investigation shows that the employer DID violate the law, the DFEH will try to resolve the complaint through “conciliation” (voluntary agreement) with the employer (see Step 6).
    If the investigation shows that the employer did NOT violate the law, the DFEH will close your case and give you a Right-to-Sue notice. The Right-to-Sue notice allows you to file a lawsuit in court against the employer on your own.


During conciliation, the DFEH will attempt to resolve your complaint by reaching a voluntary settlement agreement with the employer. (This is just like what happens in the EEOC complaint process, after the EEOC makes a Reasonable Cause decision.)

Possible Litigation.

If the DFEH cannot reach an agreement with the employer, it may decide to file a lawsuit against the employer on your behalf. If the DFEH does not file a lawsuit against the employer, it will give you a Right-to-Sue notice that allows you to file a lawsuit in court on your own.[2115]

  1. 2109

    Cal. Gov’t Code § 12960 et seq. See also DFEH, Complaint Process,; DFEH, Employment Complaint Process,

  2. 2110

    The form is also available at Complaint Inquiry—Employment.pdf.

  3. 2111

    Cal. Gov’t Code § 12965(b).

  4. 2112

    You must file the lawsuit within one year from the date on the Right-to-Sue notice, NOT from when you actually receive the notice. See Hall v Goodwill Industries of Southern Cal., 193 Cal. App. 4th 718 (2011).

  5. 2113

    DFEH, Instructions to Obtain a Right-to-Sue Notice, to Sue form (3 pages).pdf.

  6. 2114

    In most cases, state and federal civil rights laws are very similar, so any discrimination would violate both California state law and federal Title VII. In these situations, the DFEH will also file your complaint with the EEOC. However, there are some situations where California law provides MORE protection than federal law, so certain behavior by an employer would only violate state law but NOT Title VII. In these situations, the DFEH will investigate your complaint on its own, but will not file a copy of the complaint with the EEOC.

  7. 2115

    Cal. Gov’t Code § 12965(b).