News   /   August 17, 2022   /   

California Supreme Court Rules that Penalties for Violating Rights of the Disabled Under Unruh Civil Rights Act Do Not Apply to Public School Districts

In a recent case involving a special needs student who was assaulted while on a public school campus, Brennon B. v. Superior Court, the question before the California Supreme Court was whether school districts can be liable under the Unruh Civil Rights Act[1] (“Act”).

The question is an important one, because if an entity is found liable under the Act, a claimant is entitled to statutory penalties and attorney’s fees against the entity. Under the Act, the statutory penalty for each discriminatory offense can reach up to three times the actual damage sustained by the plaintiff, or at a minimum $4,000 (four thousand dollars) per offense.

Ultimately, in its decision on August 4, 2022, the Court held that public school districts are not subject to liability under the Act, which prohibits businesses in California from discriminating against all persons based on protected characteristics, e.g., race, religion, or disability. The Court reasoned that public schools, as governmental entities engaged in the provision of a free and public education, are not “business establishments” within the meaning of the Act. Schools by their very nature are not involved in commercial enterprise whose principal mission is the transactional sale of goods or services. A public school’s overall function is akin to “[] a public servant rather than a commercial enterprise,” and is therefore not subject to the Act.

Upon its review, the Court found that statutory history and case law do not support the inclusion of public schools into the ambit of the Act. While the Court acknowledged the inclusion of public schools in previous versions of the Act, subsequent statutory history and case law indicated a progressive narrowing that concluded with their eventual removal of public schools from the Act’s current iteration.

This decision is notable for school districts in California as it limits available avenues for pursuing civil claims against public education institutions, and will spare school districts from costly penalties contained in the Act.

OMLO will continue to monitor these developments carefully. This article is for informational purposes only and only provides an overview of specific developments. It is not intended to be, and should not be construed as, legal advice for any particular fact situation. For actual legal advice and specifics pertaining to your governmental entity, please contact your OMLO attorney for assistance.

[1] Civ. Code, § 51(b)

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