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How the Office for Civil Rights Handles Complaints

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Below is a summary of OCR's complaint processing procedures. For additional information please see our Case Processing Manual.


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OCR enforces the following laws:

  • Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color or national origin;
  • Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex;
  • Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability;
  • Age Discrimination Act of 1975, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of age;
  • Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability;
  • Boy Scouts of America Equal Access Act, part of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, which prohibits denial of access to or other discrimination against the Boy Scouts or other Title 36 U.S.C. youth groups in public elementary schools, public secondary schools, local education agencies, and state education agencies that have a designated open forum or limited public forum.


OCR evaluates the written information that it receives to determine whether it constitutes a complaint that is subject to further processing. If so, OCR determines whether it can investigate the complaint. OCR makes this determination with respect to each allegation in the complaint. For example, OCR must determine whether OCR has legal authority to investigate the complaint; that is, whether the complaint alleges a violation of one or more of the laws OCR enforces. OCR must also determine whether the complaint is filed on time. Generally, a complaint must be filed with OCR within 180 calendar days of the date of the alleged discrimination. If the complaint is not filed on time, the complainant should provide the reason for the delay and request a waiver of this filing requirement. OCR will decide whether to grant the waiver. In addition, OCR will determine whether the complaint contains enough information about the alleged discrimination to proceed to investigation. If OCR needs more information in order to clarify the complaint, it will contact the complainant; the complainant has 14 calendar days within which to respond to OCR’s request for information.

Bases for OCR’s dismissal of a complaint include:

  • OCR does not have legal authority to investigate the complaint;
  • The complaint fails to state a violation of one of the laws OCR enforces;
  • The complaint was not filed timely and a waiver will not be granted;
  • The complaint is speculative, conclusory, or incoherent, or lacks sufficient detail to infer discrimination and the complainant does not provide the information that OCR requests within 14 calendar days of OCR’s request;
  • The allegations raised by the complaint have been resolved;
  • The complaint has been investigated by another Federal, state, or local civil rights agency or through a recipient’s internal grievance procedures, including due process proceedings, and there was a comparable resolution process pursuant to legal standards that are acceptable to OCR or, if still pending, OCR anticipates that there will be a comparable resolution process pursuant to legal standards that are acceptable to OCR;
  • The same or similar allegations based on the same operative facts has been filed by the complainant against the same recipient in state or Federal court;
  • The complaint is a continuation of a pattern of complaints against multiple recipients that places an unreasonable burden on OCR’s resources.


If OCR determines that it will investigate the complaint, it will issue letters of notification to the complainant and the recipient. Opening a complaint for investigation in no way implies that OCR has made a determination with regard to the merits of the complaint. During the investigation, OCR is a neutral fact-finder. OCR will collect and analyze relevant evidence from the complainant, the recipient, and other sources as appropriate. OCR will ensure that investigations are legally sufficient and are dispositive of the allegations raised in the complaint.


OCR may use a variety of fact-finding techniques in its investigation of a complaint. These techniques may include reviewing documentary evidence submitted by both parties, conducting interviews with the complainant, recipient’s personnel, and other witnesses, and/or site visits. At the conclusion of its investigation, OCR will determine with regard to each allegation that:

  • There is insufficient evidence to support a conclusion that the recipient failed to comply with the law, or


  • A preponderance of the evidence supports a conclusion that the recipient failed to comply with the law.

OCR’s determination will be explained in a letter of findings sent to the complainant and recipient. Letters of findings issued by OCR address individual OCR cases. Letters of findings contain fact-specific investigative findings and dispositions of individual cases. Letters of findings are not formal statements of OCR policy and they should not be relied upon, cited, or construed as such. OCR’s formal policy statements are approved by a duly authorized OCR official and made available to the public.


If OCR determines that a recipient failed to comply with one of the civil rights laws that OCR enforces, OCR will contact the recipient and will attempt to secure the recipient’s willingness to negotiate a voluntary resolution agreement. If the recipient agrees to resolve the complaint, the recipient will negotiate and sign a written resolution agreement that describes the specific remedial actions that the recipient will undertake to address the area(s) of noncompliance identified by OCR. The terms of the resolution agreement, if fully performed, will remedy the identified violation(s) in compliance with applicable civil rights laws. OCR will monitor the recipient’s implementation of the terms of the resolution agreement to verify that the remedial actions agreed to by the recipient

have been implemented consistent with the terms of the agreement and that the area(s) of noncompliance identified were resolved consistent with applicable civil rights laws.

If the recipient refuses to negotiate a voluntary resolution agreement or does not immediately indicate its willingness to negotiate, OCR will inform the recipient that it has 10 days to indicate its willingness to engage in negotiations to voluntarily resolve identified areas of noncompliance, or OCR will issue a Letter of Impending Enforcement Action to the parties providing a factual and legal basis for a finding of noncompliance.

If the recipient remains unwilling to negotiate an agreement, OCR will either initiate administrative enforcement proceedings to suspend, terminate, or refuse to grant or continue Federal financial assistance to the recipient, or will refer the case to the Department of Justice. OCR may also move immediately to defer any new or additional Federal financial assistance to the institution.


Facilitated Resolution Between the Parties (FRBP):

Facilitated Resolution between the Parties allows the parties (the complainant and the institution which is the subject of the complaint) an opportunity to resolve the complaint allegations quickly. If both parties are willing to try this approach, and if OCR determines that FRBP is appropriate, OCR will facilitate settlement discussions between the parties and work with the parties to help them understand the legal standards and possible remedies. Staff assigned by OCR to conduct FRBP will not be the staff assigned to the investigation of the complaint.

OCR does not approve, sign or endorse any agreement reached between the parties as a result of FRBP, and OCR does not monitor the agreement. However, if the recipient institution does not comply with the terms of the agreement, the complainant may file another complaint with OCR within 180 days of the date of the original discrimination or within 60 days of the date the complainant learns of the failure to comply with the agreement, whichever date is later.

Resolution Agreement Reached During an Investigation

A complaint may also be resolved before the conclusion of an investigation, if the recipient expresses an interest in resolving the complaint. If OCR determines that resolution of the complaint before the conclusion of an investigation is appropriate, OCR will attempt to negotiate an agreement with the recipient. OCR will notify the complainant of the recipient’s request A resolution agreement reached before the conclusion of an investigation will be monitored by OCR.




Right to File a Separate Court Action

The complainant may have the right to file suit in Federal court, regardless of OCR’s findings. OCR does not represent the complainant in case processing, so if the complainant wishes to file a court action, he or she must do so through his or her own attorney or on his or her own through the court’s pro se clerk’s office.

If a complainant alleges discrimination prohibited by the Age Discrimination Act of 1975, a civil action in Federal court can be filed only after the complainant has exhausted administrative remedies. Administrative remedies are exhausted when either of the following has occurred:

  1. 180 days have elapsed since the complainant filed the complaint with OCR and OCR has made no findings; or
  2. OCR issues a finding in favor of the recipient. If this occurs, OCR will promptly notify the complainant and will provide additional information about the right to file for injunctive relief.


Prohibition against Intimidation or Retaliation

An institution under the jurisdiction of the Department of Education may not intimidate, threaten, coerce, or retaliate against anyone who asserts a right protected by the civil rights laws that OCR enforces, or who cooperates in an investigation. Anyone who believes that he or she has been intimidated or retaliated against should file a complaint with OCR.

Investigatory Use of Personal Information

In order to investigate a complaint, OCR may need to collect and analyze personal information such as student records or employment records. No law requires anyone to give personal information to OCR and no formal sanctions will be imposed on complainants or other persons who do not cooperate in providing information during the complaint investigation and resolution process. However, if OCR is unable to obtain the information necessary to investigate a complaint, we may have to close the complaint.

The Privacy Act of 1974, 5 U.S.C. § 552a, and the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), 5 U.S.C. §552, govern the use of personal information that is submitted to all Federal agencies and their individual components, including OCR. The Privacy Act of 1974 protects individuals from the misuse of personal information held by the Federal government. It applies to records that are maintained by the government that are retrieved by the individual's name, social security number, or other personal identifier. It regulates the collection, maintenance, use and dissemination of certain personal information in the files of Federal agencies.

The information that OCR collects is analyzed by authorized personnel within the agency and will be used by the government only for authorized civil rights compliance and enforcement activities. However, in order to investigate or resolve a complaint, OCR may need to reveal certain information to persons outside the agency to verify facts or gather additional information. Such details could include the name, age, or physical condition of the person who is the alleged subject of discrimination. Also, OCR may be required to reveal information requested under FOIA, which gives the public the right of access to records of Federal agencies. OCR will not release any information about a complainant to any other agency or individual except in the one of the 11 instances defined in the Department's regulation at 34 C.F.R. § 5b.9(b).

OCR does not reveal the name or other identifying information about an individual (including individuals who file complaints or speak to OCR) unless (1) such information would assist in the completion of an investigation or for in enforcement activities against an institution that violates the laws, or; (2) unless such information is required to be disclosed under the FOIA or the Privacy Act. OCR will keep the identity of complainants confidential except to the extent necessary to carry out the purposes of the civil rights laws, or unless disclosure is required under the FOIA, the Privacy Act or otherwise by law; or (3) information is permitted to be disclosed under both FOIA and the Privacy Act and OCR determines disclosure would further an interest of the Department and the United States.

However, OCR can release certain information about your complaint to the press or general public, including the name of the school or institution; the date your complaint was filed; the type of discrimination included in your complaint; the date your complaint was resolved, dismissed or closed; the basic reasons for OCR’s decision; or other related information. Any information OCR releases to the press or general public will not include your name or the name of the person on whose behalf you filed the complaint except as noted in the paragraph above.
FOIA gives the public the right of access to records and files of Federal agencies. Individuals may obtain items from many categories of records of the Federal government, not just materials that apply to them personally. OCR must honor requests for records under FOIA, with some exceptions. Generally, OCR is not required to release documents during the case evaluation and investigation process or enforcement proceedings, if the release could reasonably be expected to interfere with or affect the ability of OCR to do its job. 5 U.S.C. § 552(b)(7)(A). Also, a Federal agency may refuse a request for records if their release would or could reasonably be expected to result in an unwarranted invasion of privacy of an individual. 5 U.S.C. § 552(b)(6) and (7)(C). Also, a request for other records, such as medical records, may be denied where disclosure would be a clearly unwarranted invasion of privacy.

Updated March 2018

Complaints that allege discrimination based on age are timely if filed with OCR within 180 calendar days of the date the complainant first knew about the alleged discrimination.

Last Modified: 09/25/2018