California's Unruh Civil Rights Act and Digital Accessibility: An Overview

July 26, 2022

The Unruh Civil Rights Act (California Civil Code sections 51) is a landmark civil rights law that prohibits most businesses from discriminating against individuals on the basis of sex, race, ethnicity, religion, disability, and many other characteristics. 

Enacted in 1959, the act allows plaintiffs to sue for monetary damages of up to $4,000 per offense. Many other non-discrimination laws — such as the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) — only allows plaintiffs to recover legal expenses. 

In recent years, commercial websites have become common targets for Unruh Act lawsuits. In this article, we’ll discuss some of the basic requirements of the act and its impact on digital accessibility. 

The Unruh Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act

Many website accessibility lawsuits contain challenges under the Unruh Act and the ADA, which has led to misconceptions about both laws. As discussed above, the Unruh Act allows for monetary damages, while the ADA does not. 

Additionally, the laws are different in several other important ways: 

  • The Unruh Civil Rights Act isn’t specific to disability status. The law also outlaws discrimination against people on the basis of their gender, religion, sexual orientation, genetic information, and many other individual characteristics.
  • The ADA is federal legislation and applies to all “places of accommodation" within the United States, not just businesses operating in the state of California.
  • Any violation of the ADA constitutes a violation of the Unruh Act.
  • To be awarded monetary damages under the Unruh Act, a plaintiff must provide evidence that discrimination was intentional, unless the alleged action violates the ADA.

Can my business be sued under the Unruh Civil Rights Act?

The scope of the Unruh Act is fairly broad. It requires “full and equal accommodations, advantages, facilities, privileges, or services in all business establishments.” 

That includes hotels, hospitals, theaters, non-profit organizations that are public accommodations, public agencies, retail establishments, and virtually every other business that offers services to the residents of California. 

The California Supreme Court has established the precedent that ADA violations constitute violations of the Unruh Act, and the Department of Justice has repeatedly stated that internet content falls under the mandate of the ADA. The takeaway: In order to comply with the Unruh Act, businesses must offer accessible digital content. 

Related: Who Can File Web Accessibility Lawsuits Under the ADA?

Can a business offer accessible alternatives to web content for Unruh Act compliance?

Auxiliary aids might not be sufficient. In Thurston v Midvale Corporation, the defendant argued that they complied with the Unruh Act and the ADA by providing a telephone number and email address for users with disabilities.

The California Supreme Court found that neither option was an acceptable alternative. In the court’s opinion, “the provision of an email or phone number does not provide full and equal enjoyment of the Defendant’s website, but rather imposes a burden on the visually impaired to wait for a response via email or call during business hours rather than have access via Defendant’s website as other sighted customers.” 

WCAG and the Unruh Civil Rights Act

Like the ADA, the Unruh Act was established law long before the internet existed. As such, California Civil Code section 51 does not include technical requirements for digital accessibility.

However, lawsuits filed under the Unruh Act frequently cite the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), which are widely considered the international standards for digital accessibility. Websites that meet WCAG Level AA guidelines are generally considered to be reasonably accessible for most users with disabilities.

While WCAG is a voluntary standard, plaintiffs often reference WCAG violations as evidence. Examples of Unruh Act cases that reference WCAG include the aforementioned Thurston v. Midvale Corporation and the landmark Robles v. Domino’s Pizza, LLC.  

Related: Does the ADA Require Mobile Websites and Apps to be Accessible?

Testing Web Content for Unruh Act Compliance

To comply with the Unruh Act, the ADA, and other non-discrimination laws, you’ll need to build content that follows the four foundational principles of accessibility. WCAG requires content to be perceivable, operable, understandable, and robust, and the WCAG standards are organized to help content creators meet these goals. 

Many WCAG issues can be identified with automated testing. The Bureau of Internet Accessibility provides a free, confidential website analysis, which tests content against WCAG 2.1 Level AA checkpoints. 

Some accessibility issues require human analysis, and for long-term compliance, you’ll need a long-term strategy that combines automated testing with manual reviews. An accessibility partner can help you build a plan that works — and reach a much larger audience by providing your customers with an accessible website.

Talk with our subject matter experts (SMEs) to get started. For more information on WCAG and ADA compliance, download the Ultimate Guide to Web Accessibility

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