How Can the California Civil Rights Department Help Protect Tenants from Landlord Discrimination and Harassment?

Tenant Law Group has brought discrimination and harassment claims under the Fair Employment and Housing Act in many of our cases against landlords and property managers across the state.  A lawsuit is not the only way to use this law to hold wrongdoers accountable, though, and may not be the best tool depending on what a tenant might want to achieve.  This post will introduce readers to the California Civil Rights Department and discuss why filing a complaint with this state agency could be the better approach. 

The California Civil Rights Department, formerly the Department of Fair Employment and Housing, is empowered by the Fair Employment and Housing Act discussed in September’s newsletter article to protect Californians from discrimination, harassment, and hate crimes motivated by the victim’s membership in a protected class such as race, sex, disability, gender identity, among others.  It is the largest state agency of its kind in the country and also assumes responsibility for the enforcement of some Fair Housing Act cases delegated by the federal government’s Department of Housing and Urban Development.  As previously discussed in our newsletter, CRD can investigate claims of discrimination or harassment and potentially bring an enforcement action against a landlord.  Where we have found CRD of most help for clients, however, has been in their ability to offer mediation to parties and the creation of a binding agreement to change someone’s behavior: for example, to change a policy, allow an accommodation, or pursue some sort of reform. 

Obtaining a settlement agreement through CRD can be extremely valuable for a few reasons when compared to the benefits of a lawsuit.  Typically, courts prefer to resolve matters through awarding money damages rather than telling a party that they must do something.  While a court might order a landlord to correct their behavior, this would only come after a lengthy process ending in a trial that could take well over a year to complete.  By contrast, though a tenant may wait for a month or more to have their complaint reviewed by CRD, the agency is required by statute to resolve cases within a matter of months.  This can mean that a tenant can more easily go through the process of hearing their case and receiving a meaningful remedy while remaining in their home.  It is usually not practical to wait for a case to pass through the courts.  Working with CRD has another benefit: it is completely free, with the tenant owing nothing to the agency from any money damages that might be obtained. 

Pursuing a claim might not be ideal though if a tenant is not as interested in remaining in their home and instead wishes to obtain money damages instead.  Discriminating against or harassing a member of a protected class may violate related state protections, such as the covenant of quiet enjoyment.  Breaching the covenant of quiet enjoyment may lead to constructive eviction, so a person who has been the been treated differently because of their race, sex, disability, or other protected class may want to sue when the situation becomes bad enough that they must leave their home.  Importantly, a tenant who begins the complaint process with CRD “tolls,” or pauses the time limit on filing a lawsuit based on FEHA, called the statute of limitations.  So, if a person filed a complaint, but then felt the process was not working fast enough and conditions were no longer bearable, they could withdraw it and retain a lawyer to sue in civil court instead. 

There are many considerations to keep in mind when experiencing discrimination, harassment, or any other misconduct by a landlord or property manager.  Tenants should feel confident in their choices.  One way to cover all bases is to talk to an experienced tenant rights lawyer.