Discrimination In California Business Establishments: The Unruh Act

by CMCP - California Minority Counsel Program

While you’d be hard pressed to find a California lawyer who doesn’t know that discrimination against business patron is unlawful, many are not familiar with the California law barring such discrimination – the Unruh Act.[i]  The standards, damages and procedures of Unruh Act cases differ from those of the Fair Employment and Housing Act in significant ways.

Banks, restaurants, hotels, nonprofit and religious organizations are among the entities that may be the subject of a lawsuit under the Unruh Act.  The Unruh Act prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex, race, color, religion, ancestry, national origin, disability, medical condition, genetic information, marital status, or sexual orientation in all business establishments (referred to in this article interchangeably as “business”) of every kind whatsoever.[ii]  The classes protected by the Unruh Act are illustrative, not exhaustive, as the Unruh Act is intended to protect all persons from arbitrary discrimination.[iii]  Under section (f) of the Unruh Act, a violation under the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) is also a violation of the Unruh Act.[iv]   

Essential Elements

With the exception of claims that are also violations of the ADA, intentional discrimination is required for violations of the Unruh Act.[v]  A plaintiff must prove (i) he or she was denied full and equal privileges to, or otherwise discriminated against by, a business, (ii) a motivating reason for the denial or discrimination was the business’ perception of plaintiff’s protected status, (iii) plaintiff was harmed, and (iv) the business’ conduct was a substantial factor in causing the harm.[vi]

“Business Establishment” Defined Broadly

California Supreme Court decisions interpreting the Unruh Act have emphasized that “business establishments” must be interpreted “in the broadest sense reasonably possible.” [vii] The Unruh Act applies not only to any type of for-profit commercial enterprise but also to non-profit entities that serve the business or economic interests of its owners or members.[viii]  However, a charitable social organization whose formation and activities are unrelated to economic or business interests will not be considered a business for purposes of the Unruh Act.[ix]

Unruh Act’s Varied Applicability

Many lawsuits brought under the Unruh Act involve allegations that a business establishment’s premises discriminate against disabled customers and/or are not in compliance with the ADA.[x]  Given the broad interpretation of “business establishment” under the Unruh Act, membership decisions in social organizations have also been challenged under the Unruh Act.[xi]  The Unruh Act has also been invoked against an airline whose personnel engaged in alleged national-origin discrimination[xii] and a retailer whose website was purportedly inaccessible to blind customers.[xiii]  Price discounts based on sex have been struck down by the Unruh Act; however, discounts based on age (students and the elderly) have been upheld because they are supported by public policy.[xiv]  The Unruh Act does not apply to claims for employment discrimination.[xv]   


An Unruh Act plaintiff can recover (i) special and general damages, (ii) an amount no less than $4,000 and no more than three times the special and general damages up to a maximum of three times the special and general damages, but in no case less than $4,000, and (iii) attorney’s fees for each violation of the Act.  Injunctive relief is also available under Civ. Code § 52(c).    

Possible Defenses to an Unruh Act Claim         

Lack of Standing          

The Unruh Act was intended to provide recourse for individuals actually denied full and equal treatment by a business.[xvi]  In 2008, the California Court of Appeal held that to have standing to sue for discriminatory practices under the Unruh Act, a plaintiff must tender the purchase price for a business’ services or products.[xvii]  Thus, for a plaintiff to have standing, he or she must have a special interest that is concrete and actual rather than conjectural or hypothetical.[xviii]

Statute of Limitations        

Claims for denial of full and equal accommodations under the Unruh Act must be brought within two years of the alleged discrimination.[xix]  There is no requirement that a plaintiff exhaust administrative remedies.

Reasonable Regulations Governing Customer Conduct

Customer or patron misconduct is not protected by the Unruh Act.  Business establishments have the right to adopt reasonable restrictions on its customers when those restrictions are rationally related to the business being conducted on the facilities.[xx]  Similarly, a business may insist that customers who damage property, injure others, or otherwise disrupt business leave the premises.[xxi]

Limited Jurisdiction

Depending on the facts of the particular case, a defendant may argue that a verdict of $25,000 is “virtually unobtainable” and request a reclassification hearing to transfer the case from unlimited to limited jurisdiction.[xxii]  

No Construction Required   

The Unruh Act does not require that a business construct, alter, or repair the premises beyond that construction that is otherwise required by other provisions of law.[xxiii]         

[i] Cal. Civ. Code § 51

[ii] Cal. Civ. Code § 51(b).

[iii] Vaughn v. Hugo Neu Proler Int’l., 223 Cal. App. 3d 1612, 1617 (1990); O’Connor v. Village Green Owners Assn., 33 Cal. 3d 790, 795 (1983). 

[iv] Cal. Civ. Code Sec. 51(f).

[v] Munson v. Del Taco, Inc., 46 Cal. 4th 661, 666 (2009)

[vi] Judicial Council of California Civil Jury Instructions (CACI) No. 3060

[vii] Curran v. Mount Diablo Council of the Boys Scouts of Am., 17 Cal. 4th 670, 696 (1998). 

[viii] Id.; see also O’Connor v. Village Green Owners Assn., supra, (condominium association), Rotary Club of Duarte v. Board of Directors, 178 Cal. App. 3d 1035 (1986) (nonprofit civic association of business and professional men where a primary purpose of the organization was to promote the business interest of its members); Stevens v. Optimum Health Inst. (S.D. Cal 2011) US Dist LEXIS 95372 (religious organization); Nat’l Fedn. of the Blind v. Target Corp., (N.D. Cal. 2007) 452 F. Supp. 2d 946 (retailer’s website a business establishment under Unruh Act).

[ix] Curran at 697-698. 

[x] See, e.g., Hankins v. El Torito Restaurants, Inc., 63 Cal. App. 4th 510 (1998), Moeller v. Taco Bell Corp., 816 F. Supp. 2d 831 (2011); http://www.bloomberg.com/article/2013-06-17/a68VGw6XOovc.html

[xi] Curran, supra; Randall v. Orange County Council, Boy Scouts of Am,. 17 Cal. 4th 736 (1998).

[xii] Abou-Jaoude v. British Airways, Inc., 228 Cal. App. 3d 1137 (1991).

[xiii] Nat’l Fedn. of the Blind v. Target Corp., 452 F. Supp. 2d 946 (N.D. Cal. 2007)

[xiv] Koire v. Metro Car Wash, 40 Cal. 3d 24, 35-38 (1985).

[xv] Rojo v. Kliger, 52 Cal. 3d 65 (1990); Bates v. UPS, 511 F. 3d 974 (2007). 

[xvi] Midpeninsula Citizens for Fair Housing v. Westwood Investors, 221 Cal. App. 3d 1377, 1383 (1990) (emphasis added).

[xvii] Surrey v. TrueBeginnings, LLC, 168 Cal. App. 4th 414, 416 (2008). 

[xviii] Id. at 417.

[xix] Gatto v. County of Sonoma, 98 Cal. App. 4th 744, 754-760 (2002); Mitchell v. Sung, 816 F. Supp. 597, 602 (N.D. Cal 1993); Cal. Code Civ. Proc. § 335.1. 

[xx] Wynn v. Monterey Club, 111 Cal. App. 3d 789 (1980).

[xxi] In re Cox, 3 Cal. 3d 205, 217 (1970).   

[xxii] Walker v. Superior Court, 53 Cal. 3d 257, 269 (1991).

[xxiii] Cal. Civ. Code § 51(d).


Written by:

CMCP - California Minority Counsel Program

CMCP - California Minority Counsel Program on:

Readers' Choice 2017
Reporters on Deadline

"My best business intelligence, in one easy email…"

Your first step to building a free, personalized, morning email brief covering pertinent authors and topics on JD Supra:
Sign up using*

Already signed up? Log in here

*By using the service, you signify your acceptance of JD Supra's Privacy Policy.
Custom Email Digest
Privacy Policy (Updated: October 8, 2015):

JD Supra provides users with access to its legal industry publishing services (the "Service") through its website (the "Website") as well as through other sources. Our policies with regard to data collection and use of personal information of users of the Service, regardless of the manner in which users access the Service, and visitors to the Website are set forth in this statement ("Policy"). By using the Service, you signify your acceptance of this Policy.

Information Collection and Use by JD Supra

JD Supra collects users' names, companies, titles, e-mail address and industry. JD Supra also tracks the pages that users visit, logs IP addresses and aggregates non-personally identifiable user data and browser type. This data is gathered using cookies and other technologies.

The information and data collected is used to authenticate users and to send notifications relating to the Service, including email alerts to which users have subscribed; to manage the Service and Website, to improve the Service and to customize the user's experience. This information is also provided to the authors of the content to give them insight into their readership and help them to improve their content, so that it is most useful for our users.

JD Supra does not sell, rent or otherwise provide your details to third parties, other than to the authors of the content on JD Supra.

If you prefer not to enable cookies, you may change your browser settings to disable cookies; however, please note that rejecting cookies while visiting the Website may result in certain parts of the Website not operating correctly or as efficiently as if cookies were allowed.

Email Choice/Opt-out

Users who opt in to receive emails may choose to no longer receive e-mail updates and newsletters by selecting the "opt-out of future email" option in the email they receive from JD Supra or in their JD Supra account management screen.


JD Supra takes reasonable precautions to insure that user information is kept private. We restrict access to user information to those individuals who reasonably need access to perform their job functions, such as our third party email service, customer service personnel and technical staff. However, please note that no method of transmitting or storing data is completely secure and we cannot guarantee the security of user information. Unauthorized entry or use, hardware or software failure, and other factors may compromise the security of user information at any time.

If you have reason to believe that your interaction with us is no longer secure, you must immediately notify us of the problem by contacting us at info@jdsupra.com. In the unlikely event that we believe that the security of your user information in our possession or control may have been compromised, we may seek to notify you of that development and, if so, will endeavor to do so as promptly as practicable under the circumstances.

Sharing and Disclosure of Information JD Supra Collects

Except as otherwise described in this privacy statement, JD Supra will not disclose personal information to any third party unless we believe that disclosure is necessary to: (1) comply with applicable laws; (2) respond to governmental inquiries or requests; (3) comply with valid legal process; (4) protect the rights, privacy, safety or property of JD Supra, users of the Service, Website visitors or the public; (5) permit us to pursue available remedies or limit the damages that we may sustain; and (6) enforce our Terms & Conditions of Use.

In the event there is a change in the corporate structure of JD Supra such as, but not limited to, merger, consolidation, sale, liquidation or transfer of substantial assets, JD Supra may, in its sole discretion, transfer, sell or assign information collected on and through the Service to one or more affiliated or unaffiliated third parties.

Links to Other Websites

This Website and the Service may contain links to other websites. The operator of such other websites may collect information about you, including through cookies or other technologies. If you are using the Service through the Website and link to another site, you will leave the Website and this Policy will not apply to your use of and activity on those other sites. We encourage you to read the legal notices posted on those sites, including their privacy policies. We shall have no responsibility or liability for your visitation to, and the data collection and use practices of, such other sites. This Policy applies solely to the information collected in connection with your use of this Website and does not apply to any practices conducted offline or in connection with any other websites.

Changes in Our Privacy Policy

We reserve the right to change this Policy at any time. Please refer to the date at the top of this page to determine when this Policy was last revised. Any changes to our privacy policy will become effective upon posting of the revised policy on the Website. By continuing to use the Service or Website following such changes, you will be deemed to have agreed to such changes. If you do not agree with the terms of this Policy, as it may be amended from time to time, in whole or part, please do not continue using the Service or the Website.

Contacting JD Supra

If you have any questions about this privacy statement, the practices of this site, your dealings with this Web site, or if you would like to change any of the information you have provided to us, please contact us at: info@jdsupra.com.

- hide
*With LinkedIn, you don't need to create a separate login to manage your free JD Supra account, and we can make suggestions based on your needs and interests. We will not post anything on LinkedIn in your name. Or, sign up using your email address.