Public School Districts are Not “Business Establishments” for Purposes of Unruh Civil Rights Act

CATEGORY: Public Education Matters
CLIENT TYPE: Public Education
DATE: Dec 28, 2020

A minor student filed a lawsuit against West Contra Costa Unified School District alleging the District violated the Unruh Civil Rights Act by engaging in disability discrimination against him. The trial court ruled that the Act did not apply to a public school district, because public school districts were not “business establishments” subject to the Act. Specifically, the trial court held that while other state and federal anti-discrimination statutes apply to public school districts, the Act did not because as a governmental entity, carrying out a core governmental task (providing free public education to the children who reside in its geographic area), a public school district was not a privately owned business enterprise that would otherwise be subject to the Act. The student appealed.

On the appeal, the parties asked the Court of Appeal to decide two issues: (1) whether a public school district was a business establishment for purposes of the Act, and (2) even if a school district was not a business establishment, whether it could nevertheless be sued under the Act where the alleged discriminatory conduct was actionable under the Americans With Disabilities Act.

Because the California Supreme Court never considered whether a government entity was a business establishment within the meaning of the Act, the Court of Appeal examined the historical origin of the Act, the Act’s legislative history, previous Supreme Court decisions, and other pertinent authorities.

The Court of Appeal noted that the State’s early anti-discrimination laws acted to prohibit private citizens and enterprises from discriminating based on race in the operation of public accommodations, conveyances, and public amusement. Nothing in the historical context from which the Act emerged suggested the state legislature enacted early anti-discrimination laws to reach “state action.”

The Court of Appeal also closely examined the legislative history of the Act. The Court found prior versions of the bill reflected a progressive narrowing of the legislation’s applicability to “schools.” The legislation as introduced referred to “schools,” but the final bill included only schools that “primarily offered business or vocational training.” While public secondary schools may offer some business or vocational training, the Court of Appeal held the primary responsibility of both primary and secondary public schools was basic educational instruction. Thus, the Court of Appeal found nothing in the Act’s legislative history that suggested the legislature intended the Act to reach discriminatory conduct by state agents, such as public school districts.

Next, the Court of Appeal examined California Supreme Court precedent. First, the Court found that previous California Supreme Court decisions supported the idea that the state’s anti-discrimination laws were directed at private, rather than state, conduct. Second, many of the Supreme Court’s reasons for why it determined private entities were “business establishments” under the Act did not pertain to public school districts. In other words, the “overall function” of a public school district was not to “enhance” its “economic value” as was the case for entities the Supreme Court found to be a business establishment under the Act. Accordingly, the Court of Appeal concluded the decisions of the California Supreme Court confirmed California’s public school districts were not business establishments under the Act. The Court of Appeal also determined this conclusion was consistent with decisions by other Courts of Appeal in the State.

The student also tried to argue Education Code section 201 demonstrated that California public school districts were business establishments under the Act. Education Code section 201 is part of an extensive array of anti-discrimination statutes applicable to any public or private educational institution that received state funding. The Court of Appeal found the legislative history of the Education Code did not support the student’s argument. Additionally, the language of Education Code section 201 did not say public school districts were business establishments under the Act. Rather, it stated the Education Code anti-discrimination statutes are to be applied “as consistent with” a number of anti-discrimination laws, including the Act, “except where” the Education Code anti-discrimination statutes “may grant more protections or impose additional obligations…” (Ed. Code, § 201, subd. (g).) Here, the Education Code provided more protections than the Act.

Lastly, the student alternatively argued that even if a public school district was not a business establishment under the Act, it nevertheless can be sued for disability discrimination under the Act by virtue of Civil Code section 51, subdivision (f). However, the Court of Appeal concluded this statute made explicit that any violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act by a business establishment is also a violation of the Act. The Court of Appeal found no indication the Legislature intended, as to disability discrimination only, to transform the Act into a general anti-discrimination statute making any violation of the ADA by any person or entity a violation of the Act. On the contrary, throughout the legislative process, the legislature consistently described the Act as prohibiting discrimination by business establishments.

Ultimately, the Court of Appeal denied the student’s appeal and upheld the trial court’s ruling.

Brennon B. v. Superior Court of Contra Costa Cty. (2020) 57 Cal.App.5th 367.

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