Importance of the Unruh Act

For California business owners, understanding the implications and requirements of the Unruh Civil Rights Act (Unruh Act) is critically important. It provides protection for people and requires businesses to treat all individuals equally. Violations of the Unruh Act can have significant consequences for businesses.

Equality and Protection

The Unruh Act makes it illegal for business establishments to intentionally and arbitrarily discriminate against customers based on any personal characteristic, including sex, race, color, religion, ancestry, national origin, disability, medical condition, marital status, or sexual orientation.

The Unruh Act provides that all people are entitled to full and equal accommodations, advantages, facilities, privileges, or services in all business establishments, regardless of whether they are public or private. People need not demand equal treatment in order to later sue under the Unruh Act. Previous violators of the Unruh Act include:

● Bars that give women special discounts on ladies’ nights;
● Restaurants that have differential dress codes for each gender; and
● Organizations that only allow whites to join

The Unruh Act applies to all business establishments. These include, but are not limited to, the following:

● Hotels, motels, and housing accommodations;
● Hair stylists;
● Non-profits and for-profits;
● Restaurants and bars;
● Theaters;
● Professional organizations and golf clubs;
● Hospitals; and
● Retail establishments.

A small number of social organizations, such as the Boy Scouts, are not business establishments and therefore are exempt from the Unruh Act. Some businesses are explicitly allowed to discriminate under other laws, like insurers setting rates; the Unruh Act generally will not prevent such discrimination.

If an individual believes that a business has violated the Unruh Act, he or she may file a complaint with the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH). This complaint generally must be filed within one year of the alleged discrimination. However, if the alleged violation is in relation to hate violence, the victim has one year from the day he or she becomes aware of the perpetrator’s identity, but not more than three years from the date of the injury to file the complaint.

Alternatively, a victim can also file a lawsuit against the business. It is not necessary to file a complaint with DFEH in order to pursue a lawsuit. The potential remedies for violations of the Unruh Act include:

● Special and general damages;
● Injunctive relief; and/or
● Attorney’s fees.

Importantly, court-ordered damages may include a maximum of three times the amount of the actual damages, known as treble damages. The amount of damage awarded per violation is statutorily set at a minimum of $4,000.

The statute of limitations for Unruh Act lawsuits against private actors is two years, meaning an Unruh Act claim must be made within two years of the alleged discrimination. If the suit is against a government entity primarily for money damages, the suit is subject to the California Government Tort Claims Act and faces accelerated timelines and special procedural requirements.

Finally, the Unruh Act does not prevent businesses from performing non-arbitrary discrimination. Businesses may thus place deportment restrictions on customers that are rationally related to the business, and may otherwise discriminate where there is a compelling social interest. For example, a business can request a customer to leave when that customer causes damage to property, injury to other people, or otherwise disrupts the operation of the business. Special favorable prices for the elderly and children are also often permitted.

Protect Your Business

If your business has been accused of violating the Unruh Act, you face potentially serious consequences. It is likely that speaking with an experienced attorney will be beneficial to your company. At the Royse Law Firm, we provide expert legal representation for businesses in the Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Palo Alto areas.

Disclaimer: This blog and website are public sources of general information concerning our firm and its lawyers, as well as the information presented. They are intended, but not promised or guaranteed, to be correct, complete, and up-to-date as of the date posted. This blog and website are not intended to be, and are not, sources of legal opinion or advice. The materials, information, and communications on this blog and website do not apply to any particular person, entity, or situation, and do not apply to you or to your specific situation. You will need to consult with an attorney and/or other appropriate professional about your specific situation. Thank you.
Roger Royse

Roger Royse, the founder of the Royse Law Firm, works with companies ranging from newly formed tech startups to publicly traded multinationals in a variety of industries. Roger regularly advises on complex tax structuring, high stakes business negotiations and large international financial transactions. Practicing business and tax law since 1984, Roger’s background includes work with prominent San Francisco Bay area law firms, as well as Milbank, Tweed, Hadley and McCloy in New York City.
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