School Districts Are Not Considered a “Business Establishment” Under the Unruh Act
On November 13, 2020, in Brennon B. v West Contra Costa Unified School District (“District”), the First District Court of Appeal, Division 1, denied Plaintiff’s petition for writ of mandate seeking to appeal the District’s demurrer to the Plaintiff’s cause of action seeking relief under California’s Unruh Act. In a matter of first impression, the appellate court concluded that public school districts are not “business establishments” for purposes of the Unruh Act. Importantly, this conclusion means school districts cannot be subject to the extensive damages or attorneys’ fees that are otherwise available under the statute.
In this case the Plaintiff, who is a student with autism, alleged that the District discriminated against him on the basis of his disability and therefore also violated his rights under the Unruh Act. Plaintiff contended that the District was a “business establishment” under the Unruh Act, or in the alternative, that Civil Code section 51(f) made any violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) an automatic violation of the Unruh Act. If true, and Plaintiff was successful in his claim, he would be entitled to monetary damages under the Unruh Act.
In reaching its decision the Court followed the “analytical template [the] high court has employed in deciding whether a private entity is a business establishment for purposes of the Act.” Using that analysis, the Court concluded that public school districts are not business establishments under the Unruh Act. Moreover, the Court rejected Plaintiff’s contention that even if public school districts are not “business establishments,” they should still be held liable where the alleged discriminatory conduct is actionable under the ADA.
The Court devoted significant time to a review of the historical context and legislative intent of the Unruh Act itself in support of its holding. Specifically, the court noted that the initial draft of Civil Code section 51 stated, “All citizens within the jurisdiction of this State, no matter what their race, color, religion, ancestry, or national origin, are entitled to the full and equal admittance, accommodations, advantages, facilities, membership, and privileges in, or accorded by, all public or private groups, organizations, associations, business establishments, schools, and public facilities; to purchase real property; and to obtain the services of any professional person, group or association.” However, the bill subsequently underwent a series of amendments in both houses of the Legislature.
The Court noted that after many amendments, Civil Code section 51 was finalized to read as follows:
“ ‘. . . This section shall be known, and may be cited, as the Unruh Civil Rights Act.
‘. . . All citizens within the jurisdiction of this State are free and equal, and no matter what their race, color, religion, ancestry, or national origin are entitled to the full and equal . . . accommodations, advantages, facilities, privileges, or services in all business establishments of every kind whatsoever.’ ” [Citation] (Brennon B, at p. 12.)
Unlike many of the prior drafts, the final language of Civil Code section 51, did not refer to “schools” at all, which further supported the Court’s ruling in this case.
Alternatively, Plaintiff argued that even if a public school district is not a business establishment under the Unruh Act, he should still be able to sue the District for disability discrimination because Civil Code section 51, subdivision (f) should be interpreted to mean that a violation of the ADA by any person or entity is also a violation of the Act. The Court rejected Plaintiff’s position outright and concluded that Civil Code section 51, subdivision (f) makes explicit that only a violation of the ADA by a business establishment constitutes a violation of the Unruh Act.
Again, the Court examined the legislative history of the Unruh Act, noting the many revisions to the language and explaining:
We thus see no indication the Legislature intended, as to disability discrimination only, to transform the Unruh Act into a general anti-discrimination statute making any violation of the ADA by any person or entity a violation of the Act. On the contrary, throughout the legislative process, the Unruh Act was consistently described as prohibiting discrimination by business establishments.
Therefore, the Court determined that, based on the specific language in the Unruh Act and its legislative history, it explicitly requires a violation by a “business establishment”, and according to this ruling, that does not include public school districts.
While this is a significant ruling for public school districts in the context of disability discrimination litigation, the Court noted that this ruling does not mean school districts are free to ignore other stringent anti-discrimination laws, including “the panoply of antidiscrimination statutes set forth in the Education Code and applicable to all schools receiving any form of state funding or assistance (Ed. Code, § 200 et seq.) and the comprehensive antidiscrimination provisions set forth in the Government Code and applicable to all government entities (Gov. Code, § 11135), as well as federal constitutional mandates (actionable under 42 U.S.C. § 1983), and statutes such as Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 (20 U.S.C. § 1681 et seq.), Title II of the ADA (42 U.S.C. § 12131 et seq.), and section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (29 U.S.C. § 794).”
Nevertheless, this ruling does limit the potential monetary damages against school districts in disability discrimination cases arising out of alleged violations of the ADA, Section 504 and other relevant anti-discrimination statutes. Specifically, they will no longer include the potential for monetary damages available under the Unruh Act, which can be up to three times the actual damages, but no less than $4,000 per occurrence. It is our belief that this ruling will significantly strengthen school districts’ abilities to make informed decisions regarding the provision of special education services without the risk of statutory damages that could have potentially been available pursuant to the Unruh Act.
 It bears noting that recent case law suggests there is no longer a separate claim for relief under Government Code § 11135.