Unruh Civil Rights Act
The Unruh Civil Rights Act provides a cause of action to victims who have been the target of violence, or threat of violence against their persons or property, because of their sex, marital status, or sexual orientation. This cause of action could be helpful to a victim of the online publication of intimate images if the publication is accompanied by violent threats.
b. Text of the Statute
“(a) All persons within the jurisdiction of this state have the right to be free from any violence, or intimidation by threat of violence, committed against their persons or property because of political affiliation, or on account of any characteristic listed or defined in subdivision (b) or (e) of Section 51, [. . .] or because another person perceives them to have one or more of those characteristics. The identification in this subdivision of particular bases of discrimination is illustrative rather than restrictive.
(b) 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, 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.
[. . .]
(e) For purposes of this section:
[. . .]
(4) “Sex” has the same meaning as defined in subdivision (p) of Section 12926 of the Government Code.
[Cal. Gov’t Code § 12926(p):
“(p) ‘Sex’ includes, but is not limited to, pregnancy, childbirth, or medical conditions related to pregnancy or childbirth. “Sex” also includes, but is not limited to, a person's gender, as defined in Section 422.56 of the Penal Code.”
Cal. Penal Code § 422.56:
“(c) ‘Gender’ means sex, and includes a person's gender identity and gender related appearance and behavior whether or not stereotypically associated with the person's assigned sex at birth.”]
(5) “Sex, race, color, religion, ancestry, national origin, disability, medical condition, marital status, or sexual orientation” includes a perception that the person has any particular characteristic or characteristics within the listed categories or that the person is associated with a person who has, or is perceived to have, any particular characteristic or characteristics within the listed categories.
(6) “Sexual orientation” has the same meaning as defined in subdivision (q) of Section 12926 of the Government Code.” 1
[Cal. Gov’t Code § 12926(q): “‘Sexual orientation’ means heterosexuality, homosexuality, and bisexuality.”]
- D.C. v. Harvard-Westlake School, 98 Cal. Rptr. 3d 300 (Cal. Ct. App. 2009).
Procedural Posture: Arbitration that found in favor of defendant school and awarded expenses to it was appealed by plaintiff parents who had sued defendnat after their son was the target of online hate speech due to his perceived sexual orientation.
Law: In the first amended complaint, the plaintiffs combined the prior claims for assault, conspiracy to commit assault, death threats, and hate crimes into one cause of action alleging a violation of the Ralph Unruh Civil Rights Act (Cal. Civ. Code § 51.7) and the Tom Bane Civil Rights Act (Cal. Civ. Code § 52.1). This hate crime cause of action was one of nine causes of action. (The other eight causes of action were: public disclosure of private facts, defamation, false light, two emotional distress claims, Cal. Civ. Code § 1714.1—making parents liable for their children’s misconduct, negligent supervision of students, and fraudulent inducement).
Facts: “Several students at Harvard-Westlake, using its computers, went to the Web site and posted death threats against [plaintiff son] and made derogatory comments about him." One post read, “I'm going to pound your head in with an ice pick.” Another said, “Faggot, I'm going to kill you.” A third stated, “You are an oversized faggot.... I just want to hit you in the neck-hard.... [G]o to the 405 [freeway] bridge and jump.” A fourth read, “I hate fags.... You need to be stopped.” One student wrote, “I am looking forward to your death.” Another commented, “Not only are you a massive fagmo, but must absolutely quit showing your face at my school. You are now officially wanted dead or alive.” One post read, “I want to rip out your fucking heart and feed it to you.” Several other posts couched threats with references to plaintiff son's misperceived sexual orientation as a homosexual.”2
Outcome: Judgment was reversed, ordered trial court to make sure that plaintiffs did not pay attorneys’ fees barred by hate crime statutes.3
Practice Pointers: Initials were used in this case, but full name of parents used in the district court: Caplin v. Harvard-Westlake School.4 Note that this case does not involve publication of sexual photos, but does illustrate prevalence of sexualized violence online.
Subsequent cases: Plaintiffs also sued one of the students and his parents for hate crime, defamation, and intentional infliction of emotional distress in D.C. v. R.R.5
d. Practice Pointers
Persons found denying a right in violation of Section 51.7 may be liable for actual damages as awarded by a jury or judge, a civil penalty of $25,000 (if the suit is brought by a state attorney), and attorney fees.6 The harmed individual is able to bring a civil suit in her/his own name for damages, injunctive relief, or other equitable relief.7
- 1. Cal. Civ. Code § 51.7(a).
- 2. D.C. v. Harvard-Westlake School, 98 Cal. Rptr. 3d 300, 304 (Cal. Ct. App. 2009).
- 3. See Cal. Civ. Code §§ 52(b)(3), 52.1.
- 4. Caplin v. Harvard-Westlake School, 2007 Westlaw 5659331 (Cal. Super. Ct. Aug. 14, 2009).
- 5. D.C. v. R.R., 106 Cal. Rptr. 3d 399 (Cal. Ct. App. 2010).
- 6. See Cal Civ. Code § 52(b).
- 7. See Cal. Civ. 52.1(b).