Brennon B. v. Superior Court of Contra Costa Cnty., S266254

CourtUnited States State Supreme Court (California)
Citation513 P.3d 971,296 Cal.Rptr.3d 360
Docket NumberS266254
Parties BRENNON B., Petitioner, v. The SUPERIOR COURT OF CONTRA COSTA COUNTY, Respondent; West Contra Costa Unified School District et al., Real Parties in Interest.
Decision Date04 August 2022

513 P.3d 971
296 Cal.Rptr.3d 360

BRENNON B., Petitioner,

West Contra Costa Unified School District et al., Real Parties in Interest.


Supreme Court of California.

August 4, 2022

Liberty Law Office, Micha Star Liberty ; and Alan Charles Dell'Ario, Napa, for Petitioner.

The Arkin Law Firm, Sharon J. Arkin ; Law Offices of Charles S. Roseman & Associates, Charles S. Roseman, Richard D. Prager, San Diego; Law Offices Of Frank M. Nunes and Frank M. Nunes for Consumer Attorneys of California, Thomas Emmanuel Akande, Anahi Alfaro, Maria "Nikki" Cantos, Jasmine Castaneda, Taylor Chumley, Omar Estrada, Annadina Garcia, Gabriel Garcia, Diego Guzman, Bao Her, Ana Landeros, Helizabela Lee, Caitlyn Lindley, Alexis Lopez, Jorge Lopez-Pardo, Bailey Matney, Bolivar Quezadas, Abdiel Rosales, Myra Rubio, Rina Saengkeo, Arianna Singh, Narinderp Al Singh, Oleksandr Volyk and Amy Zendejas as Amici Curiae on behalf of Petitioner.

Linda D. Kilb and Claudia Center for Disability Rights Education & Defense Fund as Amicus Curiae on behalf of Petitioner.

Jinny Kim, Emeryville, and Alexis Alvarez for AIDS Legal Referral Panel, Arc of California, Association on Higher Education and Disability, California Association for Parent-Child Advocacy, Civil Rights Education and Enforcement Center, Communication First, Disability Rights Advocates, Disability Rights California, Disability Rights Legal Center, Impact Fund, Legal Aid at Work, Mental Health Advocacy Services and Public Law Center as Amici Curiae on behalf of Petitioner.

Victor Leung, Ana Mendoza, Ariana Rodriguez; Brandon Greene, Linnea Nelson, Grayce Zelphin ; and Melissa DeLeon for American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California, American Civil Liberties Union of San Diego and Imperial Counties, Alliance for Children's Rights, California Rural Legal Assistance, Collective for Liberatory Lawyering, East Bay Community Law Center, Equal Justice Society, Law Foundation of Silicon Valley, Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area, Learning Rights Law Center, National Center for Youth Law, Neighborhood Legal Services of Los Angeles County, Public Advocates, Public Counsel and Youth Justice Education Clinic—Loyola Law School as Amici Curiae on behalf of Petitioner.

No appearance for Respondent.

Edrington, Schirmer & Murphy, Timothy P. Murphy, Pleasant Hill, Cody Lee Saal ; Clyde & Co US, Douglas J. Collodel and Alison K. Beanum, Los Angeles, for Real Parties in Interest.

Dannis Woliver Kelley, Sue Ann Salmon Evans, Long Beach, David A. Obrand ; Keith J. Bray, Long Beach, and Robert Tuerck, Quincy, for Education Legal Alliance of the California School Boards Association and the California Association of Joint Power Authorities as Amici Curiae on behalf of Real Party in Interest West Contra Costa Unified School District.

Richard S. Linkert and Madison M. Simmons, Sacramento, for Schools Insurance Authority as Amicus Curiae on behalf of Real Party in Interest West Contra Costa Unified School District.

Opinion of the Court by Groban, J.

296 Cal.Rptr.3d 362

Brennon B. is a young man with developmental disabilities; when he was a teenager, he was a special-education student at De Anza High School in the West Contra Costa Unified School District (the District). Brennon alleges that during his time there, he was repeatedly sexually assaulted by other

513 P.3d 974

students and by a school-district staff member. In 2016, his guardian sued the District on his behalf, asserting various claims arising out of Brennon's experiences at De Anza High School; those claims included allegations the District had violated the Unruh Civil Rights Act ( Civ. Code, § 51 ; the Unruh Civil Rights Act or the Act).

The question before us is whether a plaintiff who asserts such claims can hold a public school district liable under the Act and thus avail him- or herself of the enhanced remedies — particularly statutory penalties and attorney fees — it makes available. For the reasons set forth below, we hold that Unruh Civil Rights Act liability is not available in such circumstances.

296 Cal.Rptr.3d 363

Accordingly, the judgment of the Court of Appeal denying Brennon's petition for writ of mandate is affirmed.

The statutory text of the Act, its purpose and history, and our prior caselaw all indicate that 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. ( Civ. Code, § 51, subd. (b).) To the contrary, they make clear that the Act was not enacted to reach this type of state action. Accordingly, we conclude that the District was not a "business establishment" for purposes of the Unruh Civil Rights Act under the circumstances alleged here.

We must also reject Brennon's alternative argument that he can nonetheless avail himself of the Act's enhanced remedies either because of a 1992 amendment to the Unruh Civil Rights Act or because of a 1998 amendment to the Education Code. First, Brennon contends that public school districts can be sued under the Unruh Civil Rights Act because violations of the federal Americans with Disabilities Act (the ADA) were made actionable pursuant to the 1992 amendment. This contention is foreclosed by the language and legislative history of the 1992 amendment, which contains no indication that incorporation of the ADA was intended to broaden the reach of the Unruh Civil Rights Act in the way Brennon contends. The argument is also at odds with our prior decisions and in tension with the structure of other antidiscrimination statutes. Second, there is nothing in the language or legislative history of the 1998 Education Code amendment to suggest that it entitles Brennon to relief under the Unruh Civil Rights Act. We do not believe the Legislature — in either instance — would have made such a significant change to the scope of the Act without clear language in the statutory text and without any discussion of such a change in the legislative history.

As we have done previously, "[w]e emphasize ... that our resolution of the legal issue[s] before us does not turn upon our personal views as to the wisdom or morality of the [laws and policies at issue in this case]. Instead, our task involves ... question[s] of statutory interpretation." ( Warfield v. Peninsula Golf & Country Club (1995) 10 Cal.4th 594, 598, 42 Cal.Rptr.2d 50, 896 P.2d 776 ( Warfield ); see also Curran v. Mount Diablo Council of the Boy Scouts (1998) 17 Cal.4th 670, 672, 72 Cal.Rptr.2d 410, 952 P.2d 218 ( Curran ) [similar].) Discrimination in schools is pernicious, and its elimination requires the availability of legal tools that are both practical and powerful. At the same time — through the Education Code, the antidiscrimination components of the Government Code, and various other constitutional and statutory provisions — the Legislature has enacted laws that prohibit discrimination and make remedies available to those whose rights have been violated. (See, e.g., Ed. Code, § 200 et seq. ; Gov. Code, § 11135 ; 42 U.S.C. § 1983 ; 20 U.S.C. § 1681 et seq. ; 42 U.S.C. § 12131 et seq. )

The dispute here is not about whether Brennon and other plaintiffs who prove discrimination are entitled to relief — they clearly are. (See Brennon B. v. Superior Court (2020) 57 Cal.App.5th 367, 370, 271 Cal.Rptr.3d 320 ( Brennon B. ) [discussing antidiscrimination laws to which public school districts are subject].) This case is about whether Brennon and other putative plaintiffs are entitled to pursue the specific remedies made available under the Unruh Civil Rights Act. Brennon and supporting amici curiae argue that the availability of such relief is important because it entitles successful plaintiffs to statutory penalties for each and every discriminatory offense

296 Cal.Rptr.3d 364

— up to a

513 P.3d 975

maximum of three times the amount of actual damage and in no case less than $4,000.1 It would also entitle plaintiffs to attorney fees, which, in matters of this degree of complexity, can be considerable. Brennon and several amici curiae also argue that these heightened penalties are — for policy reasons — the most effective means of vindicating the rights of disabled students in California. They assert that these remedies encourage disabled people to assert their rights, deter institutions from engaging in discrimination, and help to incentivize lawyers to litigate discrimination claims. In response, the District and its supporting amici curiae assert that subjecting public school districts to the heightened remedies made available by the Act would — in light of school districts’ already strained and limited budgets — undermine districts’ ability to deliver high quality education for their students. The District also underscores that, even without Unruh Civil Rights Act protection, there are many other statutes prohibiting discrimination that enable students to obtain appropriate relief.

Again, the policy question of whether to make the Act's enhanced remedies available in...

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