Director's Biography


Phyllis W. Cheng, Director, Department of Fair Employment and Housing.

A Message from the Director PHYLLIS W. CHENG

Welcome to the Web site of the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing. The Department is California’s civil rights agency, the largest among all 50 states. The Department takes in, investigates, conciliates, mediates and prosecutes employment, housing, and public accommodation violations and hate violence under the Fair Employment and Housing Act, Disabled Persons Act, Unruh Civil Rights Act and Ralph Civil Rights Act. The Department issues regulations that implement, interpret and make specific its procedures. The Department is headquartered in Elk Grove, with offices in Bakersfield, Fremont, Fresno and Los Angeles.  In addition, the Department has established innovative clinical programs to train a new generation of civil rights lawyers and investigators with the law schools at the University of California, Irvine and Davis, Pepperdine University School of Law's Straus Institute for Dispute Resolution; UC San Diego Extension, graduate school at California State University, Bakersfield, College of the Canyons, and Rio Hondo College.

Effective January 1, 2013, Senate Bill 1038 , signed into law by Governor Edmund G. Brown, Jr., eliminated the former Fair Employment and Housing Commission, created a Fair Employment and Housing Council with rulemaking authority within the Department, and authorizes the Department to bring civil actions directly in court .  Read more in Transformative year for civil rights in CA, reprinted with permission by  the Daily Journal.


Phyllis W. Cheng is Director of the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH). Appointed in January 2008 by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, retained by Governor Edmund G. Brown, Jr. and unanimously confirmed by the Senate, she heads the largest state civil rights agency in the nation. The DFEH takes in, investigates, conciliates, mediates and prosecutes discrimination complaints against employers, housing providers and businesses throughout California. The Department enforces the Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA), Unruh Civil Rights Act, Disabled Persons Act and Ralph Civil Rights Act.  Under her direction, Ms. Cheng has transformed the Department into a proactive and innovative agency. The DFEH has launched a cost-effective cloud-based case management system on time and within budget; developed a case grading system to better target resources to the needs of each case; established a special unit for systemic investigation and litigation; achieved an historic $8.73 million nationwide consent decree that ensures testing accommodations for law school applicants with disabilities; reached a $6 million class-wide settlement regarding workplace family leave; launched a new dispute resolution division to encourage out-of-court settlements; sponsored legislation and promulgated the Department's inaugural procedural regulations; supported the new Fair Employment and Housing Council, a rulemaking body where she serves as an ex officio member; partnered with numerous stakeholders to celebrate FEHA’s 50th anniversary and other ongoing events; conducted outreach in person and via mass and social media statewide; developed numerous clinical partnerships with law schools, universities and colleges to train future civil rights lawyers and investigators, creating a pipeline from higher education to state employment; and introduced new resources to educate the public on civil rights compliance.  In the process, the DFEH has reduced 50 percent of its overhead, while increasing its on-campus footprint, and promoting training, retaining jobs and providing upward mobility for its staff.  As a result, the Department's civil rights mission has flourished, customer service has improved, productivity has doubled, and substantial savings in taxpayer dollars have been realized. 

Ms. Cheng began her legal career as an associate at Hadsell & Stormer, a Pasadena civil and human rights firm where she practiced employment litigation representing plaintiffs. She later served as a deputy attorney general in the Civil Rights Enforcement Section of the California Department of Justice. Ms. Cheng was additionally a two-term member of the former Fair Employment and Housing Commission (FEHC), where she served as vice chair, regulations committee chair, and ruled on nearly 80 administrative decisions. She was also a senior appellate court attorney to the Honorable Laurie D. Zelon, Associate Justice of the California Court of Appeal, Second Appellate District, Division Seven. Immediately prior to her current position, Ms. Cheng was further of counsel at the Los Angeles office of Littler Mendelson, the national employment and labor law firm representing management clients. Among her published appellate court decisions are: Colmenares v. Braemar Country Club, Inc. (2003) 29 Cal.4th 1019 (definition of “physical disability” under California's FEHA is broader than that of the federal Americans with Disabilities Act); and Fair Empl. & Hous. Com. v. Super. Court (Las Brisas Apartment, Ltd. Partnership) (2004) 115 Cal.App.4th 629 (30-day statute of limitations period under Government Code section 11523 applies to writ of administrative mandate actions challenging FEHC decisions).

Before becoming a lawyer, Ms. Cheng founded and directed a citizens’ commission to address sex discrimination at the Los Angeles Unified School District, was Title IX coordinator and monitored a Title VII consent decree promoting women into administration in the school system. She was responsible for the passage of California’s version of the federal Title IX law (Ed. Code, § 200 et seq.) prohibiting sex discrimination in education. She was also a researcher on school desegregation at the RAND Corporation, adjunct faculty at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) Graduate School of Education, director of a mentoring program for at-risk minority girls at the University of Southern California (USC), and a debate panelist on KNBC-TV’s Emmy-winning “Free 4 All” program.

The State Bar of California named Ms. Cheng the 2012 Ronald M. George Public Lawyer of the Year for being an exceptional lawyer, who has dedicated a significant portion of her career to public service.  The State Bar further named the DFEH Educational Partnerships as winner of the 2013 Education Pipeline Award.  Ms. Cheng has been a member of the State Bar Committee of Bar Examiners and the executive committees of the Labor & Employment Law and Public Law Sections. She co-founded the Fair Housing and Public Accommodations Subsection of the State Bar’s Real Property Law Section.  Ms. Cheng also edited both the California Labor & Employment Law Review and the Public Law Journal, is an attorney editor of Employment Litigation (The Rutter Group California Practice Guide, 2009-current editions) and an editor to an upcoming California Fair Housing and Public Accommodations Practice Guide (The Rutter Group, California Practice Guide, in progress), authors a regular column on cases pending before the California Supreme Court, and provides a free case alert service on new labor and employment law decisions to thousands of practitioners. She has additionally published widely in both legal journals and newspapers.  Ms. Cheng further served on the California Commission on the Status of Women. 

Ms. Cheng received her B.A. and M.Ed. from UCLA, her Ph.D. from USC, where she was a James Irvine Fellow, and her J.D. from Southwestern Law School, where she serves on the Board of Trustees. She is an immigrant from Hong Kong and a native speaker of Chinese in three dialects.