Unruh Act Background
While many people are familiar with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the Unruh Civil Rights Act often receives less attention. Yet it has become the focus of thousands of lawsuits against landlords and businesses in California.
The California Unruh Civil Rights Act is a state law in California that prohibits discrimination based on protected categories, including sex, race, religion, and disability status. Also known as the Unruh Act, it was named after the former California Assemblyman Jesse M. Unruh, who authored the bill and successfully fought for its passage in 1959. The act was codified as California Civil Code sections 51, et seq.
The Unruh Act requires businesses and public accommodations to provide equal access to their services and facilities. This includes physical wheelchair access, sign language interpreters, and under some theories website accessibility for the blind, among other things.
Serial Unruh Litigation
Today the Unruh Act is commonly used by disabled, serial plaintiffs who file hundreds – sometimes thousands – of lawsuits alleging violations of the law. Generally, they allege that conditions at a retail store or website are not accessible.
Unruh Act plaintiffs typically sue for the following:
- Injunctive relief: Injunctive relief involves a court order requiring that the property or website be made accessible within a specific timeframe;
- Statutory damages: Statutory damages under the Unruh Act are set at $4,000 minimum per occurrence (i.e., every day the plaintiff encounters barriers to access); and
- Attorneys’ fees and costs: This refers to the costs of the plaintiff’s legal counsel and associated litigation expenses, including filing fees and expert consultants. This can only be obtained when a plaintiff prevails in the case.
For example, a serial plaintiff might file several lawsuits per week or month, each demanding that a store or website be made accessible, $12,000 in statutory damages for three visits, and $16,000 in attorneys’ fees. Class action Unruh Act lawsuits often involve demands for hundreds of thousands.
Defending an Unruh Act Lawsuit
Because serial ADA and Unruh plaintiffs file so many lawsuits, little attention is paid to the details of their cases. Thus, they are often mistaken about key aspects of the case. It is important to consider every possible defense when defending an Unruh Act lawsuit. For example, if the plaintiff lacks a bona fide intent to use the products or services of the business, the claims can be defended on those grounds. See our article on that subject here: How To Defend An ADA Or Unruh Lawsuit For Lack Of Standing. If the property or website at issue actually complies with the requirements of the law, this is another viable defense. See my recent article The ADA Does Not Require Website Accessibility Perfection.
It is important to know that you have either 21 or 31 days from service of the complaint to respond to an Unruh Act lawsuit, depending on whether it is filed in California superior court or federal district court.
Please reach out to me or other competent Unruh Act legal counsel if you have questions.