In today’s digital world, it is more important than ever to ensure that your website and mobile applications are compliant with laws such as the Unruh Civil Rights Act, also known as the UCRA. 

This California state law was passed in 1959 and prohibits businesses from discriminating against people based on their sex, race, color, religion, ancestry, national origin, disability or medical condition. 

But what does this have to do with digital accessibility? The UCRA is silent when it comes to websites and mobile applications, however, California federal and state courts have published precedent-setting legal opinions holding that the UCRA requires businesses to have websites and mobile applications accessible to people with disabilities.

How Does the Unruh Civil Rights Act Apply to Web Accessibility?

The Unruh Civil Rights Act statutorily applies to web accessibility in two ways. First, a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) is considered to be a violation of the UCRA, under an amendment to the UCRA in 1992.  Second, proving that a disabled person was denied access based on intentional discrimination is also a theory of recovery.  With two paths to recovery, businesses should be aware of the most notable and latest court legal opinions that have interpreted the Unruh Civil Rights Act’s application to web accessibility so they know how to comply.  

Unruh Civil Rights Act: What Kind of Business Does it Apply to?

The Unruh Civil Rights Act refers to the ADA, making it vital to examine how website accessibility comes into play for businesses under that statute. 

The ADA requires that “places of public accommodation” be accessible, which are businesses open to the public, including shops, hotels and restaurants. With respect to web accessibility, the ADA is silent as it was passed in 1990 before the introduction of the Internet. However, courts around the country have tackled the question of whether a website is a place of accommodation under the ADA, including the federal and state courts in California.

In 2019, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit issued an opinion in Robles v. Domino’s Pizza, LLC, a case where a blind man was unable to purchase a pizza on Domino’s website and app.  The appellate court decided websites and apps that have a “nexus” with a physical place of accommodation must be accessible under the ADA, and therefore also under the UCRA.  In Domino’s case, its website was deemed to be a place of accommodation because it is a main path to purchase at a brick-and-mortar establishment.  

In the 2022 case Martinez v. Cot’n Wash Inc., the California Court of Appeal ruled that a website alone is not a place of accommodation under the ADA, unless it impedes access to or enjoyment of goods and services at a physical location.  Therefore, Cot n’ Wash Inc., an e-commerce company with no physical presence, was not required to make its website accessible under the ADA, and therefore under the UCRA.  This reasoning is in line with the federal appellate court’s opinion in Robles.

Under current case law, these opinions effectively mean that in California, e-commerce businesses are not required to be accessible under UCRA, but a physical establishment with a sufficient nexus to a website will be considered a place of public accommodation required to be accessible under the ADA, and therefore under the UCRA.

Is an Inaccessible Website Considered Intentional Discrimination Under the UCRA?

In Martinez v. Cot-n Wash Inc., the California Court of Appeal also addressed whether an inaccessible website constitutes intentional discrimination under the UCRA. The appellate court found that Cot-n-Wash’s failure to remedy an inaccessible website after being given notice is not grounds to find intentional discrimination under the UCRA.

What Damages are Available to Plaintiffs Under the UCRA?

The UCRA provides that a plaintiff can recover up to three times of actual damages and $4,000 per violation. There have been California plaintiffs who have argued that they are entitled to $4,000 for each accessibility violation and/or for every time that they tried to use the inaccessible website. The federal and state courts in California (namely, in the Robles case, and the 2018 California state case, Thurston v. Midvale Corp, which was affirmed by the appellate court) have rejected this view and awarded plaintiffs a one-time fine of $4,000.  

The UCRA also allows a plaintiff to recover attorney’s fees and costs. This is the most significant expense and of the utmost concern to businesses that are being threatened with or facing litigation.

Lastly, a plaintiff can obtain injunctive relief, meaning the court can command the defendant to take action or prohibit them from taking action. In web accessibility cases, this always means that the defendant is required to enter into an accessibility plan, which is a roadmap and timetable for the website to become accessible to disabled persons. 

Should Businesses Be Concerned About Not Being Compliant Under the UCRA?

Yes, it is essential for businesses operating a website in California to comply with the Unruh Civil Rights Act.  First, compliance under the UCRA is equivalent to complying with the ADA.  Second, California federal and state courts have ruled that brick-and-mortar establishments operating websites must make their websites accessible. Third, even though it appears California has exempted e-commerce websites from accessibility, having disabled customers purchasing from another state can result in a website accessibility lawsuit in another jurisdiction.

What Are the Benefits of Being Compliant With the UCRA?

Compliance with the UCRA ensures better user experience for all visitors to your website. People with disabilities will be able to use your website without any impediments while other visitors will appreciate a clean and organized layout that is easy to navigate. Additionally, if you make an effort towards compliance with the UCRA, it may help protect your business from potential litigation, including costly attorney’s fees and costs. It is also important to note that being compliant with the UCRA can help you avoid fines and other penalties imposed by regulatory bodies such as the U.S. Department of Justice.

UserWay: Your Partners in Web Accessibility and Compliance 

If you have any questions about compliance or would like some help understanding how to make your website compliant, get in touch today. We’re here for you!

Common FAQS

Why is California’s UNRUH Civil Rights Act important for improving the user experience on your website?

Adhering to the UCRA guarantees an enhanced user experience for every individual accessing your website. By complying with these regulations, individuals with disabilities can seamlessly navigate your website, free from any obstacles. Additionally, other visitors will value the user-friendly design, featuring a well-structured and intuitive layout, promoting effortless navigation.

How can I mitigate legal risk?

To avoid legal penalties, the best initial step is to conduct an accessibility audit, ensuring that your website and associated elements are free of barriers for individuals with disabilities. This audit will establish the groundwork for achieving compliance and protecting your company against expensive lawsuits.

I need help with a legal claim – what do I do?

Web accessibility legal matters can significantly impact your business. UserWay’s Legal Support Program is here to help you navigate what can be a  stressful and complex experience. Contact us to find out how we can assist you with your legal claim.