University of Southern California

Civil Rights Leader Visits Campus
Phyllis W. Cheng Speaks to USC Students
November 25, 2013 • by News at Marshall

Phyllis W. Cheng, director of the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH), presented an update on recent activities of the largest state civil rights agency in the nation on Thursday, Nov. 14, at the University of Southern California. Cheng was invited by C. Kerry Fields, professor of clinical finance and business economics at the USC Marshall School of Business, to speak to his employment law class. The audience also included students in the Master of Real Estate Development program of the USC Price School of Public Policy and in the USC Gould School of Law.

Cheng began by talking about earning her Ph.D. as a James Irvine Fellow at USC. “I thank USC for training and educating me,” she said. “I was able to write a dissertation on a topic I cared a lot about, which is the new federalism and women’s educational equity. From there, I came into this position, so I really owe a debt to USC.”

In 2008, Cheng was appointed DFEH director and unanimously confirmed by the Senate. According to its website, the DFEH “takes in, investigates, conciliates, mediates and prosecutes discrimination complaints against employers, housing providers and businesses throughout California.” Cheng revealed how the DFEH was able to use the economic crisis as a means to innovation and make the public service agency more efficient and productive. Most notably, the DFEH automated the complaint process, thereby eliminating paperwork and reducing intake time from three months to 30 minutes.

As evidence of increased productivity, Cheng reported that the DFEH handled close to 21,500 complaints and won more than $15 million in judgments and settlements in 2012 versus approximately 20,000 complaints and more than $9 million in 2007. The agency does not take any of that money.

According to Cheng, a total of 21,463 cases were filed last year with the DFEH: 92 percent were employment-related and six percent were housing-related (violations of the Fair Employment and Housing Act), while the remaining two percent involved violations of the Ralph Civil Rights Act (hate violence), Unruh Civil Rights Act (public accommodations) and Disabled Persons Act.

Cheng was named the 2012 Ronald M. George Public Lawyer of the Year by the State Bar of California for being an exceptional lawyer who has dedicated a significant portion of her career to public service. Her description of the agency she leads is simple: “We are here,” she said, “to serve the public.”

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