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The Unruh Civil Rights Act is one of four statutes enforced by the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH), an agency of the California state government established in 1959. The overseeing DFEH protects its state residents from employment, housing and public accommodation discrimination, along with hate violence. According to a study of employee charge trends by specialty insurer Hiscox, ten states have their own anti-discrimination and fair employment practices laws that drive employee lawsuit activity. The DFEH is the largest state civil rights agency in the United States out of the ten.

Unruh Civil Rights Act

The Unruh Civil Rights Act ensures that every person is equally accommodated in private and public business establishments, such as banks, restaurants, and hotels. It’s veil of protection extends to those experiencing discrimination based on “sex, race, color, religion, ancestry, national origin, disability, or medical condition.” While the Unruh Civil Rights Act lists these specific characteristics, it is not restricted to them. The law covers arbitrary and intentional acts of discrimination, including any form of discrimination that remotely resembles the specific characteristics listed above.

This law provides a clear distinction – businesses reserve the right to refuse service based on conduct as opposed to personal characteristics. Disruptive behavior or misconduct provide the right grounds for a company to deny services.

Focusing on civil rights violations committed by the “father” agency

The Unruh Civil Rights Act also focuses on the job discrimination and harassment aspect of its father agency, guaranteeing California citizens equal privilege in the workplace. While California’s Labor Code specifies that an employer has the right to fire an employee “at-will”, there are firm exceptions to this rule created by statutes, such as terminating an employee for reasons based on discrimination laws.

In 1989, Sam Harris, an African-American male, was laid-off from his job at Hughes Aircraft Co. located in Glendale, CA, due to racial discrimination. Harris said he felt like something was “off” in his accounting job for a long time. Harris was with the company for more than 11-years, yet he was underpaid compared to his white co-workers who worked in similar positions but did not have as much experience as him. During his time with the company, he received only one promotion but was never given a raise. At trial, even more acts of discrimination revealed themselves. Harris recalled one time in particular when he received a strong performance evaluation at work, that his boss told his supervisor to “water down the appraisal.”

It was after Harris’ lay-off that he decided the only line of defense available to him was the law. But it wasn’t until 1995, after battling the court system and Hughes Aircraft Co for six years, that he finally won $1.4 million from his racial discrimination and wrongful termination suit.

Complaints about workplace discrimination weren’t decreasing enough

In 1997, racial discrimination was responsible for 36.2 percent of workplace discrimination suits in the United States, only decreasing to a mere 34.7 percent by 2014. In California, complaints of discrimination must be filed to the DFEH within one year of the last act of discrimination. While the DFEH’s mission is to protect individuals from discrimination by business establishments, it remains impartial to both the plaintiff and the defendant, remaining loyal to the statutes of the law.

The process of filing a complaint

After a complaint is filed, DFEH investigates the validity of the complaint, establishing whether there is sufficient evidence to establish a violation of the law. The DFEH then takes the matter to Fair Employment and Housing Commission or to civil court. Remedies to the plaintiff can take the form of:

  • Out-of-pocket expenses
  • Cease and desist orders
  • Damages for emotional distress
  • And/or other exemplary damages

The plaintiff also has the option to go directly to court to file their complaint, bypassing DFEH completely and does not need a “Right-to-Sue” letter issued by the DFEH.