Metropolitan News-Enterprise


Friday, June 12, 2009


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Supreme Court Clarifies Rule on Disability Bias Claims

Proof of Intentional Discrimination Not Required for Damages, Justices Rule


By STEVEN M. ELLIS, Staff Writer


Plaintiffs seeking damages under California’s Unruh Civil Rights Act and the federal Americans with Disabilities Act for the denial of equal treatment on the basis of disability need not prove intentional discrimination, the California Supreme Court ruled yesterday.

The court unanimously held that the Legislature intended to provide disabled Californians injured by violations of the ADA with the remedies provided under the Unruh Act when it voted in 1992 to incorporate the federal act into state law.

The ruling came in response to a request by the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for clarification of state law in a suit by Kenneth Munson—whose physical disability requires him to use a wheelchair—against a Del Taco restaurant in San Bernardino.

Loyola Law School professor Michael Waterstone, who teaches disability rights, praised the decision, predicting that a different ruling “would have decimated the strength of California’s disability laws regarding accessibility of businesses and public places.”

He explained:

“Part of the reason that businesses comply with California’s disability laws is that they do not want to be sued for damages. If they could avoid damage awards by arguing that they had not intentionally discriminated, it would have been a huge step back for California’s accessibility laws.”

Munson filed suit in the Central District of California under the Unruh Act and the ADA seeking injunctive relief, damages and attorney fees after he encountered architectural barriers he said denied him legally-required access to the restaurant’s parking area and restrooms.

U.S. District Judge A. Howard Matz granted Munson partial summary judgment, reasoning that there was no genuine issue of fact that an architectural barrier existed and that the restroom doorway could be widened.

The parties then stipulated to $12,000 in damages with Del Taco reserving the right to appeal, but the Ninth Circuit determined that a conflict existed between its 2004 decision in Lentini v. California Center for the Arts, 370 F.3d 837, interpreting the California Legislature’s enactment of Civil Code Sec. 51(f), and the California Court of Appeal’s contrary decision two years later in Gunther v. Lin, 144 Cal.App.4th 223.

The California Supreme Court held in 1991 in Harris v. Capital Growth Investors XIV, 52 Cal.3d 1142, that proof of intentional discrimination was necessary to establish a violation of the Unruh Act. The Legislature added subsection 51(f) to the Civil Code the following year.

Under Sec. 51(f), “[a] violation of the right of any individual under the Americans with Disabilities Act”—which does not necessarily require a plaintiff to show intentional discrimination—“shall also constitute a violation of this section.”

In 2004, the Ninth Circuit ruled in Lentini that the enactment of Sec. 51(f) added ADA violations, whether intentional or not, to the class of discriminatory acts for which the Unruh Act provides a damages remedy in Sec. 52.

However, the Court of Appeal expressly disagreed in Gunther, holding that while an unintentional ADA violation was by virtue of Sec. 51(f) a violation of that section, no damages remedy was available under Sec. 52.

Del Taco argued on appeal that intent was required under the Unruh Act and that Munson failed to put forth any evidence that the restaurant intentionally discriminated against him.

But Justice Kathryn Mickle Werdegar wrote for the Supreme Court that “[a]lthough linguistically admissible, Gunther‘s reading of the statute is not consistent with our understanding of the Unruh Civil Rights Act as elucidated in Harris, or with the law‘s history.”

She continued:

“On examining the language, statutory context, and history of [Sec. 51(f)], we conclude Lentini‘s interpretation was right and Gunther’s was wrong. The Legislature’s intent in adding subdivision (f) was to provide disabled Californians injured by violations of the ADA with the remedies provided by Sec. 52….

“By adding subdivision [Sec. 51(f)], making all ADA violations—whether or not involving intentional discrimination—violations of the Unruh Civil Rights Act as well, the Legislature included ADA violations in the category of “discrimination” contrary to section 51, thus making them remediable under section 52.”

The case is Munson v. Del Taco, Inc., 09 S.O.S. 3563.


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