California has a long-reaching history of anti-discrimination law. Extending as far back as 1897, California law has prohibited discrimination against individuals in places of public accommodation. Codified in section 51 of the California Civil Code, the section has been amended several times over the past 100 years. Section 51 in 1905, and after two subsequent amendments in 1919 and 1923, provided that:
“[a]ll citizens within the jurisdiction of this state are entitled to the full and equal accommodations, advantages, facilities and privileges of inns, restaurants, hotels, eating houses, places where ice cream or soft drinks of any kind are sold for consumption on the premises, barber shops, bath houses, theaters, skating rinks, public conveyances and all other places of public accommodation or amusement, subject only to the conditions and limitations established by law, and applicable alike to all citizens.”
For as long as California has proscribed discrimination in places of public accommodation under section 51, it has also provided a damages remedy for violation of the law. The remedy available for violation of section 51 was established in section 52, and provided that anyone who denied a citizen access to any public accommodation or facility was liable for an amount not less than one hundred dollars in damages. Thus, from its inception, section 51 sought to obtain equality for its citizens by proscribing discrimination, commanding that public places admit all citizens equally, and allowing aggrieved plaintiffs to recover damages to compensate for the harm.
As a civil rights act, subsequent amendments expanded both the classes of persons protected by the law as well as the types of public accommodations to which the law applied. In 1959, in what the California Supreme Court reasoned was a legislative response to several appellate court rulings holding that section 51 did not protect African-Americans from exclusion from places such as private schools and dentist offices, section 51 was significantly revised in two respects. First, the law was broadened to unequivocally prohibit discrimination in all business establishments. Second, an illustrative list that identified categories of protected persons was added to the law. As enacted, the 1959 revision stated that:
“[a]ll citizens within the jurisdiction of this State are free and equal, and no matter what their race, color, religion, ancestry, or national origin are entitled to the full and equal accommodations, advantages, facilities, privileges, or services in all business establishments of every kind whatsoever.”
In 1974, “sex” was added to prohibit gender-based discrimination, and in 1987, the Unruh Act was broadened to encompass discrimination against blind or otherwise physically disabled individuals. A 1992 amendment eliminated the “blindness” and “physical” distinctions, expanding the law to apply to all persons with disabilities. In its current form, section 51 reads:
“All persons within the jurisdiction of this state are free and equal, and no matter what their sex, race, color, religion, ancestry, national origin, disability, or medical condition are entitled to the full and equal accommodations, advantages, facilities, privileges, or services in all business establishments of every kind whatsoever.”
After enactment of the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) in 1992, the Unruh Act was amended to incorporate ADA standards, declaring that a violation of the ADA would also constitute a violation of the Unruh Act.
To prevail on a section 51 claim, a plaintiff must plead and prove that the defendant’s violation was intentional, unless the action is predicated on a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Damages are available under section 52 to prevailing plaintiffs in the amount of up to three times the actual damages and no less than $4,000 in statutory damages.
Courts have reasoned that the various amendments to the Unruh Act over the last eighty years indicate the California Legislature’s intent to clarify and expand the coverage of the law to benefit all persons within California, and protect them from arbitrary discrimination in public places.