What You Should Know About California Unruh Act

This article provides information about accessibility laws and regulations, but is not legal advice. You should consult a lawyer for advice on specific legal issues or problems.

California is an economic powerhouse for the United States, boasting a $3.7 trillion economy–the largest in the country and fifth largest in the world. Because of its size, being able to do business in California and with the state’s residents is a must for national and global companies.

Organizations that want to operate in California or sell to its residents online must adhere to the state’s business regulations. One such regulation, the Unruh Civil Rights Act, prohibits discrimination against people based on a number of criteria, including disability. For e-commerce and other online businesses that operate in California, following Unruh is essential.

In this post, we’ll discuss this key civil rights law and how your business can ensure its website is accessible.

What is the Unruh Act?

The Unruh Civil Rights Act, also known as California Civil Code Section 51, was enacted in 1959 to ensure equal access for individuals in various areas of public life and protection from discrimination based on age, ancestry, color, disability, national origin, race, religion, sex or sexual orientation. The law’s protections extend to housing and public accommodations.

While originally intended for brick-and-mortar businesses, courts have extended the Unruh Act’s scope over time to include websites. In addition, these decisions have noted that the law not only applies to deliberate discrimination but also to practices with unintentional discriminatory effects. This puts a high degree of responsibility on businesses to ensure their products, services, and processes are non-discriminatory and accessible to all.

Difference Between Unruh and the ADA

After the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) was enacted in 1990, the interpretation of the Unruh Act was amended to apply standards that are consistent with the ADA, such as that online businesses are places of public accommodation and so are subject to both pieces of legislation. Thus, any violation of the ADA is a violation of the Unruh Act. While Unruh and the ADA are similar–they both relate to disability rights–they have different scopes and contexts.

The main difference is that the California Unruh Act applies only to the state, while the ADA is a U.S. federal law that aims to prohibit discrimination against individuals with disabilities. It covers a broader range of areas nationwide, including employment, public accommodations, transportation, telecommunications, and state and local government services. While Unruh includes additional protected classes, like sexual orientation and gender identity, the ADA has a more comprehensive reach on a national level, addressing various aspects of disability rights.

The Unruh Act also carries different penalties for violation, which can include:

  • Statutory Damages: The Unruh Act allows for statutory damages, with a minimum of $4,000 per occurrence or per violation. This means that each day or instance of discrimination can be subject to a minimum penalty of $4,000.
  • Actual Damages: In addition to statutory damages, people who have faced discrimination under the Unruh Act may seek actual damages, which would compensate them for any losses or harm suffered as a result of the violation.
  • Attorney’s Fees: The Unruh Act also allows for the recovery of attorney’s fees by the prevailing party, which means that the party who successfully brings a claim under the Unruh Act can have their legal expenses covered by the opposing party.

The ADA primarily focuses on providing injunctive relief and promoting accessibility rather than monetary damages. Penalties under the ADA may include:

  • Injunctive Relief: The ADA allows people to seek court orders that require barriers to accessibility be removed. This can include implementing accessibility measures to ensure equal access for people with disabilities.
  • Civil Penalties: While the ADA does not provide for statutory damages like the Unruh Act, the Department of Justice can impose civil penalties for ADA violations. The specific amount of these penalties can vary and would depend on factors like the size of the business and the severity of the violation. It’s important to note that the penalties for ADA violations are determined by the Department of Justice and may differ from case to case.

Who Should Comply With the California Unruh Act?

The Unruh Act applies to all companies that do business in California, including those that operate online. Courts have ruled that websites can be considered places of public accommodation, and are thus subject to the requirements of the Unruh Act. This means that online businesses operating in California (even if they are physically located in another state) are expected to provide equal access and accommodations to individuals protected under the Unruh Act, including people with disabilities.

Unruh Compliance Standards

Similar to the ADA, the Unruh Act does not have specific technical compliance standards outlined within the law itself. However, there is an expectation that businesses and websites covered by the Unruh civil rights law should provide equal access and accommodations to individuals protected under the act. This includes ensuring accessibility for people with disabilities.

The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) are widely considered the benchmark for meeting accessibility requirements. Created by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), WCAG is the most-referenced set of standards in website accessibility lawsuits and is widely considered the best way to achieve accessibility.

The WCAG guidelines are broken down into four primary principles:

  • Perceivable
  • Operable
  • Understandable
  • Robust

According to these Principles, web content must pass a series of testable Success Criteria that focus on important access issues for people with disabilities. Based on these criteria, websites are graded A, AA, or AAA to show how accessible they are. An A grade represents minimum competency, AA indicates the site meets competency, and AAA exceeds expectations. Grades are applied to various criteria based on their importance for accessibility, whether they apply to all web content, whether conformance can reasonably be achieved, and whether there are any workarounds.

Level A indicates criteria that must be met for minimum conformance, Level AA indicates criteria that must be met for acceptable conformance, and Level AAA indicates criteria that must be met for full conformance. To ensure compliance with the Unruh Act, businesses should, at a minimum, meet the requirements of WCAG 2.1 (Level AA).

Making Your Website Accessible

A good place to start your Unruh compliance journey is with a WCAG Accessibility Checklist, which can provide the various criteria and accessibility features your site should include. Some of these items include:

  • Ensure content is fully accessible using only a keyboard.
  • Provide captions or audio descriptions for videos and audio.
  • Include alternative text for visual images that communicate relevant information.
  • Define the language of the page within the coding.
  • Use a 3:1 color contrast ratio for text.

Your accessibility checklist serves as an important guide but is not the only resource you’ll need to achieve and maintain accessibility standards. You will also need testing tools to identify areas of your site that require accessibility updates, as well as web development and coding expertise to implement these changes.

While compliance is the objective, another important aspect of Unruh, ADA, and other civil rights laws is ensuring actual, tested accessibility. Whether doing business in California, across the U.S., or globally, all businesses should strive to make their website accessible to all. At TPGi, we offer tools, training, and services that help businesses achieve and maintain digital accessibility, ensuring they are compliant with key laws and are accessible to all potential customers.

For more information about how TPGi can help your company achieve accessibility, reach out today.

Categories: Accessibility Strategy, Legal, World of Accessibility
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