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Public Schools Are Not Subject To Unruh Civil Rights Act
Brennon B. was a 14-year-old special education student in the West Contra Costa Unified School District (District). Brennon alleged that 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 people with disabilities 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 for those who win their cases, including 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.
On appeal, the California Supreme Court addressed the issue of whether a public school district could be liable under the Act. After examining the language of the Act, its purpose and history, and prior case law, the 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 that provide 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.
Brennon B. v. Superior Court, 13 Cal.5th 662 (2022).
Although this case applies to public school districts, the California Supreme Court’s reasoning indicates that the Unruh Civil Rights Act does not apply to local government public entities either. The Court said that a “business establishment” under the Act is an entity that must operate as a business or commercial enterprise.