That Dog Can Hunt: Appellate Court Rules Unruh Act Protections Apply to Service Animals

In Flowers v. Brinda Prasad (2015) 2015 DAR 8259, disabled plaintiff John Smith and his son Seth Smith brought suit alleging they had been denied service at defendants’ business (the Valley Indian Café in Rohnert Park, California) due to the presence of their licensed service dog. Plaintiffs’ Complaint included causes of action for violation of the Unruh Civil Rights Act (California Civil Code §§51, 52) and the Disabled Persons Act (California Civil Code §§54-55.3) among others.

Several defendants demurred to the Unruh Civil Rights claim, contending that because the Disabled Persons Act contains express provisions addressing discrimination related to the use of service dogs, and the Unruh Civil Rights Act does not, plaintiffs could only state a discrimination claim under the Disabled Persons Act. The trial court agreed, sustaining the demurrer to the Unruh Act claim.

Other defendants filed a motion for summary adjudication on the same bases, which the trial court also granted. Plaintiffs then requested dismissal of their claims with prejudice in order to expedite appellate review of the issue.

On appeal, defendants argued that because the legislature specifically identified service animal discrimination in the Disabled Persons Act, and not in the more broadly-worded Unruh Civil Rights Act, it must have intended that the victims of such discrimination only seek remedies contained in the former. Defendants also pointed to other conflicting provisions in the statutes which they argued made the two provisions “irreconcilable.”

The Court of Appeal for the Second Appellate District disagreed. The Court first observed that California case law has long held that both the Disabled Persons Act and the Unruh Civil Rights Act afford disabled persons alternative remedies for the denial of access caused by architectural barriers. See Molski v. Arciero Wine Group (2008) 164 Cal.App.4th 786. Both statutory schemes, the Court observed, incorporate protections established by the Americans with Disabilities Act, including protections specific to service animals.

Moreover, the Court held, even the language of the Disabled Persons Act itself reads that the remedies contained therein are “nonexclusive” and “in addition to any other remedy provided by law…” Cal. Civ. Code §54.3(b). The sole limitation on the interplay between the two statutes, according to the Court, is contained in the Disabled Persons Act in Civil Code Section 54.3(c), which reads: “A person may not be held liable for damages pursuant to both this section and [s]ection 52 (the Unruh Civil Rights Act) for the same failure to act.” That provision, the Court reasoned, makes little sense if the Legislature had intended to bar owners of service animals from seeking redress under the Unruh Civil Rights Act. According to the Court’s rationale, had the Legislature intended such a limitation it would have simply stated that prohibition.

Instead the Court found that the legislative history of the two provisions disclosed no intent to compel disabled persons to assert discrimination claims relating to service dogs exclusively under the Disabled Persons Act. As such, the Court of Appeal reversed the trial court rulings on defendants’ demurrer and motion for summary judgment.

As the legislative history of the two provisions make clear, the Unruh Civil Rights Act and the Disabled Persons Act were enacted in order to strengthen California law in areas where it was weaker than the Americans with Disabilities Act and to retain California law where it provides more protection for individuals than the ADA. Flowers is instructive in that it shows courts are not interested in parsing language or apparent inconsistencies between the two statutory schemes, especially if it results in alleviated safeguards for persons the laws were intended to protect.

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July 22, 2015