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School Districts Not Subject To Unruh Act Damages, California Supreme Court Confirms

  • August 26, 2022

August 26, 2022

On August 4, 2022, the California Supreme Court held that school districts may not be held liable for damages for civil rights violations under the Unruh Civil Rights Act. (Brennon B. v. Superior Court (2022) __ Cal.5th __ ([Case No. S266254].)  While the Unruh Act allows penalties of up to three times the amount of the damages as well as attorneys’ fees for discrimination claims, the Court found that school districts are not “business establishments” subject to the Unruh Act.  Many factors, including the fact that school districts are funded by tax dollars, differentiate school districts from business establishments.  Thus, school districts may still be subject to discrimination claims, just not under the Unruh Act.

Background

The Unruh Civil Rights Act (“Unruh Act”) provides protection from discrimination by all business establishments in California. It states: “[a]ll persons … are entitled to the full and equal accommodations, advantages, facilities, privileges, or services in all business establishments ….”  Violations may result in treble damages and attorneys’ fees.  In California, the question as to whether school districts were “business establishments” subject the Unruh Act’s provisions was unresolved.

In Brennon B., a special education student filed suit alleging that he was a victim of disability discrimination by school personnel.  His suit asserted claims under various statutes, including the Unruh Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”).  The trial court dismissed the Unruh Act claims, holding that a school district is not a “business establishment” under the Act.  The Court of Appeal agreed and the California Supreme Court agreed to hear the case.

Decision

The Supreme Court held that a school district providing educational services to a student is not considered a “business establishment” under the Unruh Act.  In making its decision, the Court examined the legislative history of the Unruh Act and prior case law.  The Court specifically looked to the definition of “business establishment” in prior case law where an entity must “effectively operate as a business or a commercial enterprise or ‘engage in behavior involving sufficient businesslike attributes.’” The Court found that public school districts do not fit in this definition.  The Court held that where a public school is acting in its capacity to provide a free education to students, including students in special education, it is acting “as a public servant rather than a commercial enterprise and is therefore not subject to the Unruh Act.”

Brennon also argued that even where a school district is not a business establishment under the Unruh Act, it can still be sued under the 1992 amendment of the Unruh Act, which made any violation of the ADA actionable under the Unruh Act.  The Court, in analyzing the language of the subdivision and its legislative history, held that the addition to the law was not intended to mean any violation by any entity, public or private because the Unruh Act, by its terms, only applies to business establishments.  Accordingly, it rejected this argument, concluding the school district was not subject to Unruh Act for violations of the ADA.

Impact

Because of the damages multiplier embedded in the Unruh Act, plaintiffs bringing discrimination suits against school districts have historically included a cause of action under this statute.  The Brennon B. decision provides clarity around anti-discrimination enforcement for public school districts. This decision does not suggest that school districts are not subject to stringent anti-discrimination laws.  However, it bars plaintiffs from bringing Unruh Act discrimination claims, seeking treble damages and attorneys’ fees, against school districts.

School districts should continue to ensure they are in compliance with the antidiscrimination statutes in the Education Code (Ed. Code, § 200 et seq.), the Government Code (Gov. Code, § 11135), and federal laws including those prohibiting the deprivation of rights, (42 U.S.C. § 1983), discrimination based on sex (20 U.S.C. § 1681 et seq), and the prohibition against discrimination (42 U.S.C. § 12131 et seq.).

PRACTICE AREAS
  • Students and Special Education
  • Litigation

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