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California State & Unruh Compliance

California Web accessibility regulations

There are two main accessibility laws in the State of California: the first, Assembly Bill No. 434 (AB 434), pertaining to state institutions and agencies; the second, named the Unruh Civil Rights Act (California Civil Code Section 51), pertaining to the private sector.

Federal laws prohibiting discrimination against people with disabilities already exist (e.g., the ADA and Section 508), but California takes it one step further to ensure high standards of accessibility across the board.

What is Assembly Bill No. 434?

The Bear Flag state introduced Assembly Bill No. 434 in 2017, obliging all state agencies’ and entities’ websites to conform with WCAG 2.0 standards at a minimum Level AA Success Criteria.

The Bill came into effect on July 1, 2019.

While county and local agencies are not mentioned in the state legislation, Section 508 of the federal government does require their conformance with WCAG 2.0 Level AA as well. In other words, if you are a Californian public organization and you have a website or other digital assets, you must comply with WCAG accessibility standards.

Find out more on WCAG conformance.

What is Unruh?

The Unruh Civil Rights Act requires “[f]ull 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
  • Restaurants
  • Theaters
  • Hospitals
  • Barbershops and beauty salons
  • Housing accommodations—including rental housing and shared-economy housing
  • Public agencies
  • Retail establishments

Unruh litigation history

The Act was originally enacted in 1959 and is named after its author, Jesse M. Unruh. Since then it has been revised multiple times, adding people with impairments to the list of those it is prohibited to discriminate against in 1992, incorporating the standards of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

What is the difference between the ADA and the Unruh Act?

Let’s begin with the similarities. According to Californian law, ADA violations are automatically considered violations of the Unruh Act.

Similar to Unruh, Title III of the ADA requires private businesses and organizations to comply with accessibility standards for people with disabilities, ensuring they are not left unengaged with the new world of goods and services offered online. ADA legislation is also comprised of strict fines, allowing plaintiffs to recover attorneys’ fees if they prevail in court. But Unruh adds another penalty on top of that, allowing the recovery of financial damages for Title III violations.

California’s accessibility laws enable the plaintiff to receive punitive damages starting at a minimum of $4,000 (decreased to $1,000 in particular circumstances) and up to treble damages. Due to California’s stricter regulations, outside court settlements average at around $20,000 in contrast to the national average of $3,500 to $7,500.

As California leads the country’s push for widespread accessibility, it accounted for 42% of all ADA lawsuits in the nation in 2017, according to some estimates.

Another difference between the ADA and the Unruh Act is that in some cases, federal courts have interpreted the ADA as applying strictly to businesses that have both websites and physical locations. Unruh on the other hand effectively requires all businesses to comply with accessibility standards, regardless of whether they have physical stores or not.

Find out more on ADA compliance.

Conducting business operations in California from other states

While opinions differ on this subject, businesses listed elsewhere that have websites selling products to California residents do, in fact, fall under the jurisdiction of the Unruh Act.

A recent lawsuit filed in August 2020, Thurston v. Fairfield Collectibles of Georgia, LLC, by plaintiffs Cheryl Thurston and Luis Licea resulted in a Georgia company needing to comply with the Unruh Civil Rights Act (California Civil Code Section 51). In the first ruling of the trial court, Fairfield was let off the hook due to minimum contacts with California.

However, the Court of Appeal reversed the decision, noting that some 8 to 10% of Fairfield’s online sales came from California. “Hence, its website is the equivalent of a physical store in California. Moreover, this case arises out of the operation of that website,” the Court of Appeal stipulated.

As this is a relatively new ruling, it remains to be seen how California courts will address similar claims in the future. But with existing ADA Title III compliance requirements, complying with Web accessibility standards as soon as possible would be the wisest option for businesses to mitigate litigation.

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