A 2012 state budget trailer bill revolutionized California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA), the state’s preeminent civil rights law. As of January 1, 2013, in addition to saving the state $784,000 annually, the measure further:
- Eliminated the former Fair Employment and Housing Commission (FEHC), which previously conducted administrative hearings and rulemaking.
- Ended administrative adjudication and authorized the Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH or Department), the state’s enforcement agency, to file cases directly in court. Prior to the DFEH filing a civil action, all parties must undergo free mandatory dispute resolution in its internal Dispute Resolution Division.
- Authorized courts, upon the Department prevailing, to award the DFEH reasonable attorney’s fees and costs to be deposited into a special fund.
- Created within the DFEH the Fair Employment and Housing Council (Council) to conduct rulemaking. Council membership is comprised of seven volunteer members appointed by the Governor and confirmed by the Senate, as well as the DFEH Director as an ex officio member.
The DFEH has swiftly moved forward on all these changes.
Expediting Investigations: Under its new HoudiniESQ cloud-based case management system, the Department expedited complaint investigations from 11 to nine months to ensure sufficient time for mandatory dispute resolution required by the new amendments.
Expanding Dispute Resolution Services: The DFEH expanded its former Mediation Division to a Dispute Resolution Division. Seven experienced attorney mediators in Northern and Southern California offices now provide both voluntary and mandatory dispute resolution services. In addition, a non-attorney mediator provides voluntary mediation services for small housing cases. In prior years, the DFEH mediators’ successful settlement rate has been 82 percent.
Filing Civil Actions: The Department is now filing civil actions in Superior Court on investigated cases with merit findings that were not successfully resolved through dispute resolution. No damages caps are available in civil actions. The DFEH can be awarded reasonable attorneys’ fees and costs, including witness fees, upon prevailing. The Department pegs its attorney hourly rate to that of the California Office of the Attorney General.