|Penalties for violating rights of the disabled don’t apply to public schools, state Supreme Court rules|
California businesses that discriminate against a customer can be sued for penalties of at least $4,000 and damages of as much as three times the harm they inflicted. But the same penalties do not apply to public schools that violate their students’ rights, the state Supreme Court ruled Thursday in the case of a disabled student from Contra Costa County. The 1959 California law, the Unruh Act, applies to civil rights violations by “business establishments.” And “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,” Justice Joshua Groban wrote in the 7-0 decision. Students can still sue schools under other discrimination laws. But those laws, unlike the Unruh Act, provide only actual damages for economic loss and emotional distress, with no punitive damages for extreme violations, and do not require schools to pay attorneys’ fees of students whose rights they violated. The court said the Legislature could amend the Unruh Act to cover schools and other government agencies. But for now, the ruling is “a demolition of civil rights,” said Micha Star Liberty, a lawyer for the disabled student and his family. “It’s not just students. The opinion applies to all governmental entities” unless they are expressly covered by laws allowing suits for additional damages, Liberty said. “Trans children, religion, race, political affiliation, pregnancy rights ... all categories that we in California hold dear and want to protect against bias.” Particularly for the disabled, “these cases are difficult to litigate and expensive, meaning victims will find their access to justice limited without the enhanced remedies and attorney fees provided for by the Unruh Act,” said Charles Dell’Ario, another attorney for the student and his family.