The California legislature recently passed a new amendment to its civil rights law (the Unruh Civil Rights Act) aimed at curbing abuses related to disability discrimination lawsuits against public accommodations (i.e. businesses that offer goods and services to the public). This bill, sponsored by Senate Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento) and Senator Bob Dutton (R-Rancho Cucamonga) received strong bipartisan support and now awaits a decision from Governor Jerry Brown.
Recent figures show that California is home to approximately 40% of all claims against businesses alleging a failure to satisfy accessibility requirements for the disabled. As in most states, plaintiffs will file such lawsuits under both the federal ADA and a state civil rights statute that provides state remedies for disability discrimination. Unlike the ADA, many of these state civil rights laws (e.g. the Unruh Act) allow for the recovery of damages in addition to injunctive relief and attorney’s fees.
If this legislation is signed into law it will implement important requirements and limitations for filing disability discrimination suits against public accommodations in California. This includes a ban on what is often referred to as “demand for money” letters. This is where a plaintiff’s attorney files a lawsuit and then (sometimes simultaneously) makes a demand for damages and attorney’s fees in exchange for dropping the lawsuit. Rather, a plaintiff (or plaintiff’s attorney) must provide a business with a letter setting forth a description of any alleged construction-related accessibility violations at least 30 days before filing a lawsuit. This amendment also reduces the amount of damages that a plaintiff can recover under California law for accessibility violations where a business corrects any violations or deficiencies within 30 to 60 days after receiving a complaint.
In addition to putting in place measures to curb predatory lawsuits, this legislation requires the California Commission on Disability Access to develop and promulgate educational materials to businesses describing their obligations under federal and state law. This mandate would be funded by a $1 dollar increase to the state’s business license fee.
Although this law (if ultimately signed by Governor Brown) will only impact directly California businesses (or businesses that operate facilities in California) it could be an important stepping stone to similar legislative action at the federal level. For example, California Representative Dan Lungren (R-CA) has introduced legislation in Congress aimed at curbing predatory litigation tactics sometimes employed under the federal ADA. The debate surrounding these laws demonstrates the often difficult task of balancing the goals of the ADA and state disability discrimination laws with their potential (and in some cases practice) of creating a vehicle for frivolous or predatory litigation. We will continue to monitor this significant legislation, as well as similar legislation in other states and at the federal level.