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Court of Appeal Rules School Districts are Exempt from the Unruh Civil Rights Act

Posted by Michael T. Travis | Nov 30, 2020 | 0 Comments

On November 13, 2020, the California Court of Appeal decided a case of first impression regarding school district liability under the Unruh Civil Rights Act (“Act”).  The Court in Brennon B. v. Superior Court, 2020 Cal. App. LEXIS 1077 (Ct. App. Nov. 13, 2020) held that public school districts are not “business establishments” under the Act and could therefore not be held liable for alleged violations thereof.

This is a major victory for school districts as it eliminates a significant and commonly used ground of statutory liability for schools.  The decision is subject to a petition review by the California Supreme Court.  Should review of this case be granted, further updates will follow.

In Brennon B., the Petitioner, a grade student with autism, alleged that he had been a victim of disability discrimination and that the district should be liable under the Act. In denying his claim, the Court held: (1) that public school districts are not business establishments under the Act and (2) subdivision (f) of the Act limits liability for Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) to only business establishments.

In 1959, the California legislature passed the Unruh Civil Rights Act, which is codified in California Civil Code Section 51, “Civil Rights of Person in Business Establishment.” The Act protects employees against discrimination from businesses based on various characteristics, including race, color, national origin, ancestry, language, immigration status, citizenship, religion, sex, sexual orientation, disability, marital status, medical information, or genetic information.

The Court in Brennon B. was asked whether a public school district qualifies as a business establishment under the Act, thereby determining whether a public school district could be found liable for violations of the Act. Finding that no other courts had discussed this issue, the Court analyzed the legislative history of the Act. The Court observed that the reduction and ultimate elimination of schools within drafts of the Act showed that the legislative intent of the Act was not to define schools as business establishments.

The Court also reviewed California Supreme Court cases on what qualifies as a “business establishment” under the Act. The California Supreme Court determined that a non-profit condominium association and a local boys club were business establishments because of their business-like characteristics, such as charging residents collection and assessment fees similar to a landlord; employing individuals as staff; and charging admission to use recreational facilities. On the other hand, the California Supreme Court determined that a local Boys Scouts Club was not a business establishment because its purpose was to teach a specific set of values in its youth members and that the use of recreational facilities was complimentary to that purpose.

The Brennon B. Court concluded (1) a public school's purpose was not to enhance economic value but to provide education and sets of values in its students; (2) recreational facilities were utilized to compliment that purpose; and (3) commercial transactions were not an integral part of a public school. Thus, the Court found that a public school was not a business establishment under the Unruh Act, which was intended to regulate private businesses and not state conduct.

Lastly, the Court was asked to analyze a second issue–even if a school district is not a business establishment, whether it can be sued under the Act for a violation of the ADA. The Court rejected the argument that subdivision (f) of the Act reads that any person or entity that violates the ADA also violates the Unruh Act. The Court held that only an ADA violation by a business establishment is also a violation of the Act. In coming to this conclusion, the Court found significant support that subdivision (f) of the Act intended to prevent disability discrimination within business establishments only.

In conclusion, the Brennon B. court held that a public school district cannot be liable under the Unruh Civil Rights Act for discrimination as public school districts are not considered business establishments and because subdivision (f) of the Act does not apply to non-business entities.

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