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A DISABILITY ACCESS CLAIM UNDER THE UNRUH ACT DOES NOT REQUIRE A SHOWING OF INTENTIONAL DISCRIMINATION

Posted in Discrimination

The California Supreme Court has finally settled the troubling issue of whether intentional discrimination must be shown to prove a disability access claim under the California Unruh Act. In Munson v. Del Taco, Inc., the Court decided the issue after it was certified to the California Supreme Court from the U.S. Court of Appeal for the Ninth Circuit because of the conflicting decisions in federal and state courts.

Plaintiff, Munson, was a disabled person who claimed that when he visited Del Taco in San Bernardino, he encountered numerous architectural barriers that prevented his equal access. He sued Del Taco under the federal ADA and the California Unruh Act.  The Unruh Act prohibits discrimination by business establishments in California on the basis of age, ancestry, color, disability, national origin, race, religion, sex, and sexual orientation.

After summary judgment proceedings, Del Taco appealed arguing that the Unruh Act requires a showing of intent. The Court of Appeal certified the following issue to the California Supreme Court: “Must a plaintiff who seeks damages under California Civil Code § 52, claiming the denial of full and equal treatment on the basis of disability in violation of the Unruh Act, prove intentional discrimination?”

In answering the question, the California Supreme Court examined the original language and history of the Unruh Act and the various cases interpreting it. It noted that in 2001, it ruled in Harris v. Capital Growth Investors XIV, that proof of intentional discrimination was necessary to establish a violation of the Act. However, it went on to explain that in 2002, the state Legislature amended the Act to include ADA violations as violations of the Unruh Act. Under the ADA, there is no requirement that intentional discrimination be shown to establish a violation of the Act. Therefore, the California Supreme Court held that proof of intentional discrimination was not necessary to establish a violation of the Unruh Act based on the public accommodation provision of the ADA.