California Supreme Court holds that Unruh Civil Rights Act does not apply to public school districts

On Aug. 4, in the case of Brennon B. v. Superior Court, the California Supreme Court held that  public school districts are not “business establishments” under the Unruh Civil Rights Act and, thus, the Act does not apply to them. CSBA’s Education Legal Alliance filed an amicus brief on behalf of West Contra Costa Unified School District because the application of the Unruh Civil Rights Act could subject school districts statewide to significant costs the Legislature did not intend to impose on them. Critically, school districts are already subject to several other antidiscrimination laws (including Government Code section 11135) that protect students like Brennon B. The Supreme Court ultimately ruled in favor of the district.

Brennon B. was a special education student in the West Contra Costa USD who sued the district, alleging that he was subject to sexual assault on numerous occasions by both students and a staff member. Among other claims, Brennon sued under the Unruh Civil Rights Act. The Act (Civil Code section 51) provides that all persons in California are “entitled to the full and equal accommodations, advantages, facilities, privileges, or services in all business establishments of every kind whatsoever” regardless of disability or other protected classifications. It also provides for civil penalties and attorney fees awards to plaintiffs, remedies that are not available under the other antidiscrimination statutes that apply to school districts. This applies to county offices of education, as well.

The district filed a demurrer to Brennon’s cause of action under the Act, which is a motion that states that there is no legal claim available to the plaintiff even if all of his stated factual allegations are true. The district argued that it was not a “business establishment” and was, therefore, not subject to the Act. Both the trial court and the court of appeals sustained the district’s demurrer, holding the Act does not apply to school districts. The parties settled the remainder of the issues in the case, and the Supreme Court took up the issue of whether “public school districts” are subject to the Act.

The Supreme Court based its decision on the plain language of the Act, the legislative history and prior precedent. Specifically, the Act applies only to “business establishments,” and the Court held that the Legislature did not intend that the term “business establishments” includes school districts. The Court noted that when it interprets a statute, it must “determine the Legislature’s intent so as to effectuate the law’s purpose.” According to the Court, the term “business entities” “conveys reference to commercial entities, those whose principal mission is the transactional sale of goods and services.” The Court looked to the definition of “business” in the Oxford English Dictionary and found that a school district’s mission of educating students does not fall within the definitions of “business.”

In reaching this conclusion, the Court reviewed the Act’s legislative history. The Legislature enacted the Act in 1959 in response to several court decisions that limited the reach of the public accommodation statute. Its intent was to revise and expand the scope of the statute. After introduction, the bill was amended several times in a manner that demonstrated an intent to include public school districts. However, the final version of the bill entirely omitted schools from its coverage. The Court found this to demonstrate that the Legislature did not intend the Act to cover public schools. Rather, according to the Court, the history of the Act shows that it is “focused on the actions of private actors.” The Court found the same to be true when it reviewed its prior precedent with respect to the definition of “business establishments” in the Act. While the prior opinions addressed different entities, they each described “business establishments,” they set forth a uniform reading of the term — privately-owned, commercial enterprises whose function is to protect and enhance economic value. Public school districts simply do not fall within these parameters.

In its opinion, the Court included a discussion of the important and competing policy arguments offered by the parties and amicus curiae, including CSBA’s ELA, but ultimately determined that those policy arguments were “within the province of the legislative, rather than the judicial branch.” The Court was careful to note that “[p]olicy arguments, no matter how persuasive, cannot overcome a clear legislative intent derived from statutory text and appropriate extrinsic sources.”

In addition to arguing that school districts are business establishments under the Act, Brennon made two arguments based on the language of the Act and the Education Code. First, pursuant to a 1992 amendment, the Act incorporates the federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) by stating that any violation of the ADA also constitutes a violation of the Act. Brennon argued that, even if school districts are not business establishments, the incorporation of the ADA into the Act makes school districts liable under the Act if they violate the ADA. Second, he argued that Education Code section 201 applies the Act to school districts. Specifically, it states, “it is the intent of the Legislature that this chapter shall be interpreted as consistent with … the Unruh Civil Rights Act.” Brennon argued that this provision made the additional remedies available under the Act applicable to local educational agencies. The Court rejected each of these contentions.

As to the ADA claim, the Court’s review of Legislative history once again demonstrated that there was no legislative intent to bring public school districts under the purview of the Act. The Court held that the 1992 amendment was not intended to affect a “sea change” in the definition of “business establishments,” which would be the outcome if Brennon’s argument were to stand. The Court agreed with the Court of Appeals below, which held “the Act has always been, and remains, a business establishment statute and that it is violations of the ADA by business establishments (or, as denominated by the ADA, ‘public accommodations’) that are actionable as violations of the [Act].”

Finally, the Court opted not to analyze Brennon’s argument that a 1998 Education Code amendment that added subdivision (g) to Section 201 had incorporated the Act’s remedies into the Education Code. In the Court of Appeals, Brennan had argued that the Education Code amendment “demonstrates California public school districts are business establishments under the Act.” The Court of Appeal rejected that argument and the Supreme Court agreed. Before the Supreme Court, Brennon revised his argument to claim that the 1998 Education Code amendment made the remedies under the Act available to individuals claiming violations of the Education Code. However, because Brennon never raised a claim in his lawsuit that the district violated the Education Code and settled his lawsuit, the claim was moot.

Despite that potential lingering issue, this decision was a victory for districts and county offices of education statewide as the decision by the Supreme Court forecloses an avenue of potential civil liability for plaintiffs to pursue.