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The California Unruh Act: A Simple Web Accessibility Guide
While you may be aware of how the ADA (Americans with Disability Act) can incorporate website accessibility, you may not necessarily be aware of how individual state laws can enforce compliance of website accessibility on businesses. This guide will dive deeper into California’s Unruh Civil Rights Act which was a landmark civil rights law protecting people from business discrimination or harassment within the State of California.
What is the Unruh Civil Rights Act?
California’s Unruh Civil Rights Act, enacted in 1959, protects people with disabilities from discrimination by most business establishments, including housing and public establishments.
It was originally intended for brick-and-mortar establishments but now includes virtual businesses as well. The Act requires “full and equal accommodations, advantages, facilities, privileges or services in all business establishments.” This includes, but is not limited to, the following places:
- Hotels and motels
- Nonprofit organizations that have a business purpose or are a public accommodation
- Barbershops and beauty salons
- Housing accommodations
- Public agencies
- Retail establishments
The Act prohibits discrimination based on race, color, national origin, ancestry, language, immigration status, citizenship, religion, sex, sexual orientation, marital status, disability, medical condition, or genetic information. In 1992, the Unruh Act was amended to include standards created within the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) that apply to persons with disabilities. This resulted in any violation of the ADA as a violation of the Unruh Act.
Unruh Act vs ADA
One important difference between the Unruh Act and ADA is that the ADA doesn’t allow for plaintiffs to claim damages, only attorney fees. The Unruh Act, on the other hand, allows for plaintiffs to claim up to 3x in damages per incident (damages can include emotional distress), with no less than $4000 in statutory damages.
Who Can Be Sued Under the Unruh Act?
If your website is managed in a state other than California, you may still be required to follow the Unruh Act. The Unruh Act applies to all websites that sell or promote products or services within the state of California. Overall, the Unruh Act protects all Californians no matter where the business or website is registered.
In August 26, 2020, the Court of Appeals of California determined that a Georgia company’s website which created barriers to accessibility would have to comply with California accessibility laws (the Unruh Act) because purposeful availment was shown by evidence that the company’s sales to Californians to be equivalent to a physical store in California – Thurston v. Fairfield Collectibles of Ga., LLC, 53 Cal. App. 5th 1231, 268 Cal. Rptr. 3d 365 (2020)
To sue a business due to website inaccessibility under the Unruh Act, the affected website user must have concrete evidence which shows clear arbitrary or intentional discrimination in their website.
California Unruh Act and ADA Website Compliance
As previously mentioned, the State of California operates under strict and uniform regulations. The state courts have dealt with several cases revolving around ADA and website accessibility violations.
Historical evidence proves that the California courts have charged many defendants to pay statutory fines and court costs for not being an accessible internet entity. Once the business has been charged, courts will require the business to comply with WCAG 2.0 Level AA compliance.
Exceptions to the Unruh Act
Many websites are required by law to follow the Unruh Act. Some businesses like public schools and senior housing facilities are exempt, but that is beyond this article’s scope. The bottom line is, if you have a website with activity in California, you should be following the Unruh Act. Complying with WCAG 2.0 Level AA guidelines will make your website more accessible and usable for people with disabilities and all of your visitors. The disability community is the most brand-loyal community with tremendous buying power. Making your website compliant is good business and the right thing to do.