By: Kristina Launey and Courtney Bohl

On June 11, 2014, Northern District of California Judge Jon S. Tigar ruled that the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing (“DFEH”) has neither standing nor statutory authority to enforce Title I of the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”).  The decision made clear that while the DFEH has had authority—since January 1, 2013 (as we noted here and here)—to bring enforcement actions directly in state and federal courts, that authority does not extend to federal claims of employment discrimination under Title I of the ADA.

In early 2014, the DFEH filed suit against WinCo Foods in the United States District Court for the Northern District of California, asserting multiple claims for disability discrimination and failure to accommodate under both the California Fair Employment and Housing Act (“FEHA”) and Title I of the ADA.  WinCo moved to dismiss the Complaint because (1) the DFEH’s enabling statute does not empower it to sue under Title I of the ADA, and, even if that authority did exist, (2) the DFEH lacks standing to bring ADA claims. 

Judge Tigar, in granting WinCo’s motion, extensively analyzed the FEHA and other applicable provisions of the California Government Code. Judge Tigar concluded that no law empowers the DFEH to enforce Title I of the ADA.  Judge Tigar reasoned that the FEHA is the exclusive source of the DFEH’s authority over employment claims and sets forth the full range of prosecutorial powers granted to the DFEH.  Since the FEHA does not expressly authorize the DFEH to prosecute Title I ADA claims, the DFEH lacks authority to do so. 

Judge Tigar rejected the DFEH’s argument that it has implied authority to bring ADA claims under Section 11180 of the California Government Code.  Section 11180 is incorporated into the FEHA and authorizes the head of each state department to prosecute actions concerning matters relating to the business activities and subjects under the jurisdiction of the department.  Judge Tigar held that the DFEH’s broad interpretation of Section 11180 would render redundant the 2013 legislation, that grants the DFEH authority to sue in state and federal courts.  

Judge Tigar also rejected the DFEH’s other arguments.  He reasoned that the FEHA’s grant of authority to sue in federal court is a venue provision only; it does not, as the DFEH argued, authorize the DFEH to prosecute federal claims.  He also rejected the DFEH’s reliance on the California Code of Regulations and a Worksharing Agreement between the DFEH and EEOC.  Only the DFEH’s enabling statute (the FEHA) can authorize the DFEH to prosecute federal claims—not the agency’s own actions—and the FEHA does not do so.  

Finally, Judge Tigar held that the DFEH lacks standing to bring Title I ADA claims under either traditional Article III standing or the doctrine of parens patriae (a rarely invoked doctrine that confers standing upon states to protect quasi-sovereign interests under certain circumstances).   Judge Tigar found that the DFEH cannot show the necessary injury in fact to establish traditional standing, reasoning that since the DFEH lacks statutory authorization to prosecute Title I ADA violations, it has no legally protected interest that could be invaded.  The Court also held that the DFEH cannot stand in the shoes of the “State” to assert parens patriae standing on behalf of the State of California to enforce the ADA claims because State of California did not give the DFEH this authority. 

Dealing with administrative agencies in California can be daunting, especially now that the DFEH is able to bring actions seeking attorneys’ fees, costs, and damages in federal or state court.  Employers can take heart that the DFEH’s authority is not without limits, and courts will not be afraid to enforce those limits when the DFEH attempts to overreach.

Edited by Chelsea Mesa