California Supreme Court Decides Public Schools Are Not Subject To Unruh Civil Rights Act

CATEGORY: Public Education Matters
CLIENT TYPE: Public Education
DATE: Aug 30, 2022

Plaintiff Brennon B. was a 14-year-old special education student at De Anza High School in the West Contra Costa Unified School District (District) who had been diagnosed as severely autistic. Brennon alleged that during his time as a student at the District, he was sexually assaulted by other students and by a school-district staff member.  After Brennon’s initial complaints, the District agreed to assign a supervisor to accompany Brennon to the restroom and on the school bus but failed to do so, and he was assaulted again.

Brennon sued the District alleging disability discrimination under the Unruh Civil Rights Act.  The Unruh Civil Act states that the disabled and other protected groups are entitled to equal treatment and services “in all business establishments of every kind whatsoever.”  The Act also provides enhanced remedies available for plaintiffs, including statutory penalties and attorney fees.  The trial court sustained the District’s motion to dismiss the case on the grounds that the District was not a “business establishment” subject to the Act.  Brennon petitioned for a writ of mandate to the California Court of Appeal.  The appellate court examined the legislative history of the Unruh Act and California Supreme Court decisions and found that public school districts were not business establishments under the Unruh Act by reasoning that public school districts act as the state’s agent in delivering constitutionally mandated, free education to children, and denied the petition seeking to overturn the trial court’s order.

On appeal, the California Supreme Court addressed the issue of whether a plaintiff can hold a public school district liable under the Act and thus avail themselves of the enhanced remedies –such as the statutory penalties and attorney fees.  After examining the statutory text of the Act, its purpose and history, and prior case law, the California Supreme Court unanimously held that public schools are not subject to the Act.  In reaching its decision, the Court noted that “Educating students is a task that is fundamentally different from what could fairly be described as ‘regular business transactions.”  The Court concluded that public schools, as governmental entities engaged in the provision of a free and public education, are not “business establishments” within the meaning of the Act.  When acting in their core educational capacity, public school districts do not perform “customary business functions,” nor is their overall function to protect and enhance economic value.  Therefore, the Supreme Court concluded that under the circumstances, the District was not a “business establishment” for the purposes of the Act.

Brennon B. v. Superior Court (2022) __ Cal.5th __.

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