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What does California’s Unruh Civil Rights Act do?

The Unruh Civil Rights Act, passed in 1959, is one of California’s great civil rights laws. It protects people from business discrimination based on a number of characteristics, including race, color, national origin, ancestry, language, immigration status, citizenship, religion, sex, sexual orientation, marital status, disability, medical condition, or genetic information.

All types of for-profit businesses are prohibited by the Unruh Act from discriminating, either arbitrarily or intentionally, against members of these and other protected groups in public accommodations, facilities, advantages, privileges or services.

Non-profit organizations may be covered by the Act to the extent they resemble ordinary for-profit businesses. The Act covers, for example, people and organizations that provide housing, as well as those doing ordinary business. The Act does not prohibit refusal of services based on behavior.

Who is protected?

The California Supreme Court has ruled that the protected groups are not limited to those listed specifically in the Act but can include other similarly situated individuals. Moreover, the Act specifically states that the perception that the person has a protected characteristic is enough to trigger the law.

Violations of the federal Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990 are automatically violations of the Unruh Act. Moreover, whereas in other states plaintiffs under the ADA are limited to injunctive relief, meaning a court ordering the discrimination to stop, plaintiffs under the Unruh Act can also obtain money damages. These damages can be substantial, such as $4,000 per disability access issue, for example.

While the Unruh Act may be most closely associated with disability access issues, it applies to business being done with a wide variety of people. The Act states:

“All persons within the jurisdiction of this state are free and equal, and no matter what their sex, race, color, religion, ancestry, national origin, disability, medical condition, genetic information, marital status, sexual orientation, citizenship, primary language, or immigration status are entitled to the full and equal accommodations, advantages, facilities, privileges, or services in all business establishments of every kind whatsoever.”

If you believe you have been discriminated against by a California business based on a protected or immutable characteristic, you may have a case under the Unruh Act. Contact an attorney who is familiar with this legislation for a review of your circumstances.