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Munson v. Del Taco

June 11, 2009

KENNETH MUNSON, PLAINTIFF AND RESPONDENT,
v.
DEL TACO, INC., DEFENDANT AND APPELLANT.



9th Cir. No. 06-56208; C.D.Cal. No. CV-05-5942-AHM

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Werdegar, J.

Pursuant to rule 8.548 of the California Rules of Court, *fn1 we granted the request of the United States Court of Appeals, Ninth Circuit to decide the following questions of California law, as we have rephrased them (see Cal. Rules of Court, rule 8.548(f)(5)): "(1) `Must a plaintiff who seeks damages under California Civil Code section 52, claiming the denial of full and equal treatment on the basis of disability in violation of the Unruh Civil Rights Act (Civ. Code, § 51) and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (42 U.S.C. § 12101 et seq.), prove "intentional discrimination" '? (2) `If the answer to Question 1 is "yes," what does "intentional discrimination" mean in this context?' "

Although we held in Harris v. Capital Growth Investors XIV (1991) 52 Cal.3d 1142, 1175 (Harris) that proof of intentional discrimination was necessary to establish a violation of the Unruh Civil Rights Act, the Legislature subsequently added subdivision (f) to Civil Code section 51, *fn2 specifying that "[a] violation of the right of any individual under the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990" (ADA) - which does not necessarily require a plaintiff to show intentional discrimination - "shall also constitute a violation of this section." In Lentini v. California Center for the Arts (9th Cir. 2004) 370 F.3d 837, 846-847 (Lentini), the federal court held section 51, subdivision (f) added ADA violations, whether or not involving intentional discrimination, to the class of discriminatory acts for which the Unruh Civil Rights Act provides a remedy in damages. In Gunther v. Lin (2006) 144 Cal.App.4th 223 (Gunther), however, the Court of Appeal, expressly disagreeing with Lentini, held that while an unintentional ADA violation was by virtue of section 51, subdivision (f) a violation of that section, no damages remedy under section 52 is available for such a violation. (Gunther, at pp. 239-242, 255-257.)

On examining the language, statutory context, and history of section 51, subdivision (f), we conclude Lentini's interpretation was right and Gunther's was wrong. The Legislature's intent in adding subdivision (f) was to provide disabled Californians injured by violations of the ADA with the remedies provided by section 52. A plaintiff who establishes a violation of the ADA, therefore, need not prove intentional discrimination in order to obtain damages under section 52. In light of that conclusion, we need not reach the Ninth Circuit's second question.

Factual and Procedural Background

The order of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals asking this court to decide questions of California law sets out the background of this case:

"Plaintiff Kenneth Munson has a physical disability that requires that he use a wheelchair. Plaintiff alleges that he visited the Del Taco restaurant in San Bernardino, California, which is owned and operated by Defendant Del Taco, Inc. Plaintiff further alleges that, at the Del Taco restaurant, he encountered architectural barriers that denied him legally required access to the parking area and restrooms.[ *fn3 ]

"Plaintiff filed suit against Defendant in the Central District of California. He alleged violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (`ADA'), 42 U.S.C. §§ 12101-12213, and the Unruh [Civil Rights] Act, Cal. Civ. Code § 51. Plaintiff sought injunctive relief, damages, and attorney fees under California Civil Code section 52 for the alleged Unruh Act violations.

"On cross-motions for summary judgment, the district court granted partial summary judgment in favor of Plaintiff. The court reasoned that `there is no genuine issue of fact that an architectural barrier existed' and that `there is no genuine issue of fact that the restroom doorway widening was readily achievable.' Consequently, the court ruled `that there is no genuine issue of fact that an ADA violation occurred. Thus, [Defendant] is liable under the Unruh Act and [Plaintiff] is entitled to pursue statutory damages.'

"The parties stipulated to $12,000 in damages under the Unruh Act in lieu of holding a jury trial on the issue, with Defendant reserving the right to appeal any adverse orders or judgments. The district court entered judgment, and Defendant timely appealed the district court's grant of Plaintiff's motion for partial summary judgment.

"Defendant argues on appeal that it is entitled to summary judgment because intent is required under the Unruh Act and Plaintiff failed to put forth any evidence that Defendant intentionally discriminated against him. Plaintiff does not contend that he provided evidence that Defendant was motivated by animus against people with disabilities, but argues that such intent is not required or, in the alternative, that the requisite intent is the intent not to remove barriers to access where readily achievable." (Munson v. Del Taco, Inc. (9th Cir. 2008) 522 F.3d 997, 999-1000, fn. omitted.)

Discussion

As always in interpreting statutes, our goal is "to ascertain the Legislature's intent so as to give effect to the law's purpose." (In re Corrine W. (2009) 45 Cal.4th 522, 529.) With regard to the Unruh Civil Rights Act particularly, we recently explained that it "must be construed liberally in order to carry out its purpose" to "create and preserve a nondiscriminatory environment in California business establishments by `banishing' or `eradicating' arbitrary, invidious discrimination by such establishments." (Angelucci v. Century Supper Club (2007) 41 Cal.4th 160, 167.) The Unruh Civil Rights Act "serves as a preventive measure, without which it is recognized that businesses might fall into discriminatory practices." (Ibid.)

I. Statutory Background

We begin by identifying and describing the pertinent provisions of California law and the ADA.

Section 51 provides, in pertinent part:

"(a) This section shall be known, and may be cited, as the Unruh Civil Rights Act. [¶] (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. [¶] . . . [¶] (f) A violation of the right of any ...


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