Noting that “there are exceedingly compelling, yet competing, policy concerns implicated by this case,” the Supreme Court in Brennon B. v. Superior Court today holds a school district cannot be sued under California’s Unruh Civil Rights Act. The court’s unanimous opinion by Justice Joshua Groban requires the plaintiff — who alleges that, while a special education high school student, he was sexually assaulted by a school district employee and by other students — to look elsewhere for relief.
The court assures that alternative relief is available, “through the Education Code, the antidiscrimination components of the Government Code, and various other constitutional and statutory provisions,” although those do not allow remedies as comprehensive as the Unruh Act, which provides for statutory penalties and attorney fees. It leaves to the Legislature “the policy question of whether to make the Act’s enhanced remedies available in this context, and how to weigh the various competing interests at stake.”
The Unruh Act doesn’t apply to the plaintiff’s case, the court concludes, because “public schools, as governmental entities engaged in the provision of a free and public education, are not ‘business establishments’ within the meaning of the Act.” The court says, “When acting in their core educational capacity, public school districts do not perform ‘customary business functions,’ nor is their ‘overall function . . . to protect and enhance . . . economic value.” The opinion also rejects an argument that 1990s amendments to the Act — making actionable violations of the federal Americans with Disabilities Act — and to the Education Code brought school districts within the Act’s scope.
The court affirms the published opinion of the First District, Division One, Court of Appeal. It also disagrees with what it says is the majority of federal courts that concluded school districts are subject to the Unruh Act.