California civil rights law largely mirrors federal civil rights law. People deprived of their government-protected rights may be able to file a claim with a state or federal agency or bring a lawsuit. Victims may pursue monetary damages – such as for medical bills following police brutality – and injunctive relief – such as getting to keep their job after their employer unlawfully discriminated against them.
In this article, our California civil rights lawyers explain:
- 1. What are civil rights?
- 2. What can I do if the police violated my civil rights?
- 3. What can I do if an employer discriminated against me?
- 4. What can I do if I was the victim of a hate crime?
- 5. What can I do about other civil rights violations?
1. What are civil rights?
Civil rights are rights protected by the government, federal and state. Common examples of such rights guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution include:
- Freedom of speech
- Freedom of religion
- Freedom from unlawful searches and seizures
- Freedom from cruel and unusual punishment
- Right to due process
The federal Civil Rights Act of 1964’s Title VII guarantees freedom from employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, national origin, and sex (which also includes gender identity and orientation). Subsequent legislation also prohibits discrimination based on age, disabilities, and pregnancy.1
California has its own law prohibiting employment discrimination, called the Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA). It guarantees all the protections of Title VII plus more: FEHA applies to employers with 5 or more employees, whereas Title VII applies to employers with 15 or more employees. FEHA also protects against discrimination based on marital status, age, citizenship, primary language, immigration status, medical condition, ancestry, military status, and genetic information.2
Another California law is the Unruh Civil Rights Act, which prohibits businesses from turning anyone away based on sex, race, color, religion, ancestry, national origin, age, disability, medical condition, genetic information, marital status, or sexual orientation.3
2. What can I do if the police violated my civil rights?
One requirement for 1983 and Bivens claims is that the police (or other government official) acted under color of law. This is the legal way of saying that they were acting in their official capacity when they committed the misconduct.
The biggest challenge in winning 1983 and Bivens claims is overcoming qualified immunity. Police are immune from having to pay if either:
- They did not violate the plaintiff’s constitutional rights, or
- Any right they did violate was not clearly established.4
Potential defendants in 1983 claims are state or local officials and entities. This includes the individual officers, their police department, and the county or town. Obviously, the police department and government will have much deeper pockets than the individual officer.
In contrast to 1983 claims, Bivens lawsuits cannot be brought against government entities, only the individual officers/officials.
1983 claims and Bivens claims can result in these remedies:
- An injunction, which is a court order designed to prevent further misconduct,
- Compensatory damages, to compensate the plaintiff for his/her losses,
- Punitive damages, to punish the defendant, and
- Attorney’s fees (only in 1983 claims).5
Examples of civil rights violations by law enforcement include:
- False arrest,
- Unlawful detention,
- Excessive force (including tasers and stun guns, K-9 police dogs, and pepper spray),
- Racial profiling,
- Prison and jail abuse, and
- Medical care neglect in prison
2.1. Exceptions to qualified immunity
California law carves out a few exceptions with regards to the qualified immunity defense in suits involving the police and civil rights violations.
Under the Tom Bane Civil Rights Act, citizens can file a lawsuit against government employees if they interfere by threat, intimidation, or coercion with that person’s constitutional rights.6
The law used to say that police officers could successfully assert a qualified immunity defense in these cases if they interfered with a constitutional right while investigating a crime.
However, this is no longer the case. According to Senate Bill 2, police officers can no longer raise a qualified immunity defense in any lawsuit brought under the Bane Act. The bill also states that prison guards and their employers cannot use qualified immunity to escape from liability for injuring prisoners or failing to provide them with medical care. 7
Note also that there is arguably no qualified immunity for California police officers accused of false arrest or imprisonment.8
3. What can I do if an employer discriminated against me?
People usually have to exhaust their administrative remedies before filing a lawsuit against an employer. This typically includes filing a complaint with:
- California’s Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH), and/or
- The United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC)
The agency will investigate the case for discrimination or harassment. The parties may have to try mediation. But if the matter remains unresolved, the agency will give the victim a right to sue letter. At that point, the victim may bring a civil lawsuit against the employer. Depending on the case, the plaintiff may recover:
- Compensatory damages for lost wages and other losses,
- Punitive damages to punish the employer, and/or
- Injunctive relief, such as job reinstatement
Examples of employment discrimination include:
- Wrongful termination
- Retaliation (such as for political activity and immigration retaliation)
- Promotion discrimination
- Sexual harassment (quid pro quo or hostile work environment)
- Non-sexual workplace harassment
- Whistle-blower retaliation (federal law, and Qui Tam retaliation)
Learn more in our article, how to file an employment discrimination lawsuit in California.
4. What can I do if I was the victim of a hate crime?
Hate crime victims may file a Ralph Act lawsuit against the perpetrators. The Ralph Civil Rights Act of 1976 protects people in protected classes from being intimidated or harmed because of their class status. Examples of protected class categories include:
- Gender (including intersex),
- Gender expression and identity (including transgender and non-binary),
- Sexual orientation,
- Ancestry or heritage,
- National origin,
- Medical condition,
- Genetic information,
- Marital status,
- Political affiliation,
- Primary language, and
- Immigration status
To prevail in a Ralph Act lawsuit, plaintiffs need to show that their perceived class status was the reason for the threats or violence. If successful, plaintiffs can recover:
- Compensatory damages,
- Punitive damages,
- Attorneys’ fees, and
- A civil penalty of $25,000.
Note that employees can also bring Ralph Act claims against their employer.9
5. What can I do about other civil rights violations?
People may bring Bane Act claims against anyone who interfered – or tried to interfere – with their rights by either:
- Threats of violence,
- Intimidation, or
Examples include stopping people from exercising their rights to vote, speak, protest, or bear arms by threatening to harm their families.
As with Ralph Act lawsuits, plaintiffs in Bane Act lawsuits can potentially recover:
- Compensatory damages,
- Punitive damages,
- Attorneys’ fees, and
- A civil penalty of $25,000.10
- 42 USC § 2000e-2.
- Cal Gov Code § 12940.
- Cal Civ Code § 51.
- See Harlow v. Fitzgerald, 457 U.S. 800 (1982).
- 42 U.S.C. § 1983; Bivens v. Six Unknown Named Agents, 403 U.S. 388 (1971).
- California Civil Code Section 52.1.
- See Senate Bill 2 (approved by Governor September 30, 2021).
- California Penal Code 847.
- Cal Civ Code § 51.7
- Cal Civ Code 52.1.