Office of Civil Rights (OCR) Complaints
How to File a Civil Rights Complaint
The Bill of Rights to the Constitution, as well as numerous federal and state laws, protect your civil rights and protect you from being discriminated against on the basis of traits such as gender, race, or religion.If someone has violated your civil rights, there are several methods available for you to file a complaint and see that action is taken against the violator. Filing a complaint is your first step. After you've exhausted the complaint process, you typically retain the right to file a lawsuit against the violator if your complaint was not resolved to your satisfaction.
Filing a Complaint with a Federal Agency
Determine if you must file a complaint with an agency first.Some civil rights laws require you to exhaust all administrative options before you can initiate a lawsuit.
- For example, if you believe you were a victim of housing discrimination, you must file a complaint with the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
- Nearly all civil rights complaints involving employment must be filed first with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The complaint must be filed within 180 days of the date of the incident if you wish to preserve your right to sue.
Find the agency that handles your type of complaint.Different federal agencies have control over complaints that arise under different federal laws.
- For example, the U.S. Department of Heath & Human Services investigates complaints of discrimination against health care providers or state and local agencies that provide health and social services.
Contact the appropriate department's office of civil rights.Each federal agency typically has an office of civil rights to handle all civil rights complaints filed with that agency.
- The agency provides a mailing address and phone number to contact the office of civil rights. Depending on the department, you may also be able to use a website to submit your complaint and review any additional information.
Draft your complaint.You must include your contact information along with a description of the incident in which you allege your civil rights were violated.
- Each department will have specific information that must be included in the complaint, and typically will have a form available that you can use. If you are filling out a form, you should fill in as much of the form as you can, as truthfully and completely as possible.
- At a minimum, you should make sure you include all relevant contact information, the date, time, and location of the event you allege to be discriminatory, the name and contact information of the individual you believe committed the violation, and the names and contact information of any witnesses to the violation.
- Attach any relevant documents and describe any additional steps you took to resolve the issue before submitting the complaint.
File your complaint.Once you've completed your complaint and included any supporting documentation, you must file your complaint with the appropriate agency.
- Make sure you've fulfilled all requirements of filing a complaint. Each type of complaint will have its own requirements and deadline for filing. For example, complaints filed with the HHS must be filed in writing within 180 days of the date of the event giving rise to the complaint.
- You should always file your complaint as soon as possible after the incident occurs. Typically you won't have any longer than a year after the event to file a complaint with the appropriate agency, but the deadline often is shorter.
- There usually will be a local field office where you can file your complaint in person. You also should be able to file your complaint by mail, and sometimes you can get the process started over the phone.
Cooperate with the agency's investigation.After you've filed your complaint, an agency representative may contact you with questions or requests for further documentation.
- The agency will dismiss the complaint if it determines it doesn't have the legal authority to investigate it, it wasn't filed by the deadline, or that it fails to state a violation of one of the laws that agency enforces.
- If the agency decides to investigate your complaint, you'll receive notification. You may be asked for more information, or an agency representative may call you for an interview.
- You may be encouraged to attend mediation and resolve your claims. Otherwise, the agency may launch an investigation that could take several months. You may be subject to additional interviews or further requests for information once the investigation commences.
Filing a Complaint with a State Agency
Confirm your complaint falls under state law.Some states have laws that go beyond federal law to protect your civil rights in additional contexts.
- State agencies also investigate discrimination complaints, sometimes working alongside federal agencies.
- In some situations, the state agency will send the complaint along to the federal agency as well, in a procedure known as "dual filing." For example, if you file an employment discrimination complaint with the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing, the department also will file your complaint with the EEOC.
Locate the correct agency to take your complaint.As with the federal government, state governments include different agencies that have the power to handle certain types of civil rights complaints.
- For example, if you live and work in Texas and you have a complaint about discrimination in the workplace that you believe violated your civil rights, you can file a state complaint with the Texas Workforce Commission Civil Rights Division.You also can file with the federal EEOC.
Complete the appropriate complaint form.Typically the state agency will have a form available for you to fill out that details the incident in which you claim your civil rights were violated.
- If there isn't a specific form, write a letter describing the incident completely, including the date and location of the incident and who was there. Include contact information for yourself, the person you allege violated your civil rights, and any witnesses. Identify the type of discrimination that took place and the reason you believe the events you describe constituted discrimination.
Include any necessary supporting documentation.If you have any additional documents or the names of witnesses who will back up your claims, you should attach those to your complaint form.
- Generally make sure you've included all information that would help a staff member to fully understand what happened and why you're making the complaint.
File your complaint with the appropriate agency.Once you've completed your form, make copies of everything you plan to submit for your records, then submit it to the agency.
- As with the federal government, state agencies generally require you to submit your complaint in writing.
- Some states may have a more expanded process. For example, before you file a complaint with the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing, you must first file a pre-complaint inquiry. The department will contact you within 30 days of receipt of your inquiry and schedule a phone interview. After that interview, the investigator will decide whether to accept your case for a full complaint and investigation.
Cooperate with any follow-up interviews or attempts to resolve your complaint.An agency representative will review your complaint and determine the appropriate course of action to resolve your issue.
- You may be required to meet with the investigator again. You also may be required to answer written questions submitted by the other side, or to attend a mediation or other attempt to resolve the dispute short of filing a lawsuit.
Filing a Complaint with the Civil Rights Division
Decide which section is appropriate.The U.S. Department of Justice Civil Rights Division has different sections to deal with different types of civil rights complaints.
- You can call the Civil Rights Division at (888) 736-5551 if you are unsure which section you should contact with your complaint.
- The criminal section deals with criminal complaints you would also file with the FBI. These complaints include hate crimes and force or threats of force to interfere with the exercise of your civil rights.
- The housing and civil enforcement section handles complaints from people who believe they have been victims of housing discrimination in public accommodations or in religious land use.
- If you plan to allege disability discrimination against a state or local government agency, or a public accommodation such as a restaurant or retail store, you can file the ADA complaint with the disability section of the DOJ's civil rights division. The section also accepts complaints via email.
- The DOJ's office of special counsel for immigration-related unfair employment practices enforces federal laws that prohibit employment-related discrimination based on someone's national origin or citizenship status. The section has complaint forms available which can be filled out online or printed and filled out by hand.
- The educational opportunities section accepts complaints of potential civil rights violations in education, protecting students against discrimination and harassment in violation of federal law. You can submit a complaint by email, telephone, fax, or by mailing a written letter.
- The voting section protects the right to vote. If you were discriminated against while attempting to vote or register to vote, you can submit a complaint to the voting section using email, telephone, fax, or written letter. The section also has an online form you can fill out and submit using the web form.
Make sure you meet the eligibility requirements to file a complaint.Each federal civil rights law has its own standards regarding whose rights are protected and deadlines for filing complaints.
- For example, most federal laws prohibiting employment discrimination protect you if your employer has 15 or more employees.The Immigration Reform and Control Act, however, which prohibits employment discrimination on the basis of national origin or citizenship status, protects you if your employer has just four employees or more.
Draft your complaint to the civil rights division.Write down a detailed description of the incident that gave rise to your complaint including any supporting documentation.
- Each section may have its own rules regarding what sort of information and documentation should be included with your complaint. Check with the section where you're filing your complaint to make sure you've included all the necessary information before you file your complaint.
File your complaint with the civil rights division.Once you've finished drafting your complaint, make copies and file the complaint with the appropriate section.
- Most sections of the DOJ's civil rights division accept complaints through the mail. Some also accept complaints online or over the phone.
Cooperate with the investigation by the civil rights division.If you are contacted by an attorney or other representative of the civil rights division about your complaint, be prepared to provide additional documentation or answer questions.
Filing a Complaint with the FBI
Confirm your civil rights violation constitutes a criminal offense.The FBI investigates civil rights violations that happen as a result of hate crimes, human trafficking, excessive police force, or other forms of violence and intimidation.
Locate your nearest FBI field office.You can find a local FBI field office by consulting the FBI's field office map at .
Report the incident that led to a violation of your civil rights.When you draft your report to the FBI, you must include as much detail as possible about the events that occurred.
- In addition to the date and time of the incident, you should also include names of possible witnesses.
- If you have any supporting documents such as police reports or photographs that prove any of the facts you've alleged in your complaint, make copies and attach them to your report.
Mail a copy of your complaint to the U.S.DOJ. If you want to do so, you also can submit a copy of the complaint and other documents you filed with the FBI to the criminal section of the DOJ's Civil Rights Division.
- The criminal section accepts written copies of your complaint and any other materials you submitted to the FBI through the mail at the US Department of Justice, 950 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW, Civil Rights Division, Criminal Section, Washington, DC, 20530.
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