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Unruh Act


California antidiscrimination act that makes it unlawful to discriminate on the basis of race, religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation, medical status, or marital status.


The Unruh Civil Rights Act is a California law that prohibits discrimination in the business sector. The law applies to all businesses, including restaurants, hotels, retail stores, hospitals, office spaces, and housing accommodations.

Enacted in 1959 by California politician, Jesse Unruh, the Act has been subsequently amended to arrive at these current provisions:

“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, medical condition, genetic information, marital status, or sexual orientation are entitled to the full and equal accommodations, advantages, facilities, privileges, or services in all business establishments of every kind whatsoever.”

Although the Act highlights specific categories of people, it does not only protect people in those categories; rather, it covers all people from discriminatory acts.

For example, the Act did not include a provision relating to sexual orientation until 2005. However, if the rights of an LGBT party had been violated prior to that year, the violation would have been covered under the Unruh Act.

If one party is found to have violated the rights of another, he or she may be liable to pay the following:

Damages for emotional distress

Damages up to three times the amount of the actual damages, or up to $1,000 (whichever penalty is greater)

The violated party’s out-of-pocket expenses

If the violating party threatened, intimidated, or used physical force against the violated party, he or she may be subject to a $25,000 fine. If damages do not surpass $7,500, the California Small Claims Court is responsible for reviewing the case.

Case Law As It Relates the Unruh Act

Case Review: Fair Housing Council of Orange County, Inc. v. Ayres (1994)

The case, Fair Housing Council of Orange County, Inc. v. Ayres (1994) 855 F.Supp. 315., involved married tenants who were forced by their landlord to vacate their apartment due to the size of their family.

A married couple were tenants in an apartment building that had a maximum two person per unit occupancy rule. When the wife became pregnant and gave birth to a son, the landlord (Ayres) told the tenants that they would have to vacate the apartment. Ayres argued that having three occupants in the unit was a violation of the building’s occupancy rule.

The tenants filed a complaint with the Fair Housing Council of Orange County on the grounds of familial status discrimination. The tenants alleged that Ayres was in violation of two housing acts. The Federal Housing Act and California’s Unruh Act was being violated is what the plaintiff’s contended. The Council brought the case to a District Court.

In court, Ayres contended that his maximum two person per unit occupancy rule was a business practice and, therefore, it was justified. The District Court did not agree. It argued that Ayres could not prove that this occupancy rule was the least restrictive means through which to achieve his business goals. The Court held that alternative methods — such as enforcing higher security deposits or adding additional inspections of units — could accomplish the same goals without being so restrictive.

Consequently, the Court ruled that the landlord’s occupancy rule unfairly discriminated against families with children and was therefore in violation of state and federal law.

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