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Association of California School Administrators
Association of California School Administrators
Schools not liable for disability discrimination under Unruh
January 25, 2021
In a case of first impression, the California Court of Appeal for the First Appellate District recently held that a school district is not a “business establishment” and therefore cannot be liable for disability discrimination under California’s Unruh Civil Rights Act, according to a recent client news brief from the attorneys at Lozano Smith.
The court in Brennon B. concluded the Unruh Act imposes liability only on business establishments, which does not include public school districts. However, the court made clear that school districts continue to be subject to stringent state and federal antidiscrimination laws.
Court of Appeal’s decision
The two issues before the court were: 1) whether a public school district is a “business establishment” for purposes of the Unruh Act; and 2) even if not, whether a public school district can nevertheless be sued under the Unruh Act where the alleged discriminatory conduct is a violation of the ADA. The court of appeal answered no to both questions, concluding the Unruh Act imposes liability only on business establishments, which does not include public school districts.
Where neither the California Supreme Court nor any other California Court of Appeal had previously addressed these questions, the Brennan B. court issued a 60-page opinion, which contained a comprehensive analysis of the historical context of the Unruh Act, its legislative history, and state and federal case law, all reviewed for purposes of deciding whether an entity is a “business establishment” under the act. Historically, the court noted, the Unruh Act was enacted in California to secure prohibitions against discrimination by privately owned programs and services, not to reach “state action.” Moreover, nothing in the legislative history of the Unruh Act suggested it was intended to reach discriminatory conduct by state agents, such as public school districts.
The court of appeal also canvassed California Supreme Court decisions examining the meaning of “business establishment” under the Unruh Act. While the state’s high court had never considered whether a public entity was a business establishment for purposes of the Unruh Act, its prior decisions consistently noted the state’s public accommodation laws and resulting Unruh Act have always been, and remain, directed at private rather than state conduct.
The court of appeal rejected plaintiff’s alternative argument that even if a public school district is not a business establishment under the Unruh Act, it nevertheless can be sued under it based on language in the Unruh Act that a violation of the ADA is a per se violation of the Unruh Act.
Takeaways
This case makes clear that public school districts are not subject to liability under the Unruh Act, including the potential larger monetary and statutory damages and attorneys’ fees available under that law. However, the case also makes clear that school districts continue to be subject to rigorous state and federal antidiscrimination laws, which also allow for monetary damages, injunctive relief and attorneys’ fees. For more information about the Brennon B. opinion, or disability discrimination liability generally, find this news brief at http://www.lozanosmith.com/news-clientnewsbriefdetail.php?news_id=3063.
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