California Unruh Act: How to Mitigate Website Accessibility Risk

By UsableNet on Jul 27, 2020
Topics: Web Accessibility


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When it comes to states to watch for developments in website and app accessibility guidelines and regulations, California should be on your radar. Even though they’re only setting regulations at the state level, their guidelines and requirements should be looked at as standard, especially if you’re marketing to any customers there.

In lieu of waiting for more strict and standardized regulations from the DOJ that are unlikely to come anytime soon, California has taken matters into their own hands to increase web accessibility regulations and hold businesses accountable.

A great example of this is the California Unruh Act, which is shifting how ADA lawsuits are processed and handled. In this post, we’re going to take a look at everything you need to know about the California Unruh Act, including what’s found in a typical claim and how you can mitigate your risk.

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What is THE California Unruh Act?


California’s Unruh Act is a Civil Rights Act that prohibits discrimination based on factors like age, gender, sex, race, religion, and ancestry. This Act also prohibits discrimination of those with disabilities. The way the law is set up, all violations of ADA law also violate the California Unruh Act.

The act specifically rules that:

  • Any violation of the ADA is a violation of Unruh, which is a state law
  • Violation of Unruh independent of ADA does require intent
  • Sites that are inaccessible for blind customers are counted as discrimination
  • Websites with physical nexus are subject to ADA Title III

California state is likely to be more strict than the federal courts as they have more standardized regulations. As a result, many plaintiffs do what they can to keep the lawsuits here.

What’s Typically In an Unruh


Unruh cases are increasing quickly. There were over 300 cases in 2019, and an average of 50 cases per month in 2020.

Many plaintiff’s attorneys will only cite a violation of the Unruh Act based on an underlying violation of the ADA. This allows the plaintiff to keep the defendant in state courts, preventing them from trying to move it to federal court ruling.

Unruh claims where the plaintiff is determined to stay in state courts will also often allege in the suit that they’re seeking a maximum of $74,999. If the plaintiff was suing for 75k or more, the defendant could move the case to federal court.

In addition to potential settlements, defendants who lost against an unruh claim will also be hit with litigation fees, attorney’s fees, court costs, and the cost of rectifying their site or mobile app after the fact.

How to Mitigate Your Risk of Unruh Lawsuit


Just about every business we’ve ever talked to would heavily prefer to avoid lawsuits of any kind, especially when they’re over avoidable concerns like website accessibility.

In order to mitigate your risk and protect your business from Unruh or ADA lawsuits, you can take the following steps:

  • Carefully create and maintain a website and mobile app that are up to WCAG 2.1 guidelines
  • Offer a 24/7 telephone line, using live answering services if needed
  • Create an accessibility statement, policy, and procedure
  • Review your vendor contracts and third-party content carefully, making sure that they abide by WCAG and the ADA, too

On your journey to full accessibility, we recommend taking the following additional steps:

  • Hire individuals with disabilities to test your site and mobile app for you; automated audits are great, but only actual users relying on screen-readers will catch everything. Manual and automated testing are key
  • Document your efforts so that you can demonstrate progress and intent
  • Train your website team and customer service teams to identify and quickly resolve accessibility issues
  • Periodically re-audit to make sure everything is still working, especially after key updates like a site renovation or update
  • Prioritize high-visibility issues that are most likely to impact users with disabilities

California Unruh Act and

ADA Website Compliance

California has strict regulations and their state court and Ninth Circuit are happy to step in to interpret the laws surrounding the ADA and website accessibility. They’ve ruled in the favor of multiple plaintiffs, requiring defendants to pay settlements, court costs, and improve the accessibility of their online presence.

Keep in mind that even if your business isn’t based in California that if you’re selling to any customers who live there, you may be sued under the Unruh Act. Consider the strictest accessibility standards out there as your new requirements, even if you don’t reside within the state in question. Having a more accessible site, after all, is never a bad thing.

Interested in improving your site’s accessibility so you can mitigate risks of an ADA on Unruh lawsuit? Get in touch to learn more about our combined automated and manual auditing services.

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Founded in 2000, UsableNet created some of the first tools and platforms to make websites accessible and usable for all people. Starting out, we worked with government agencies as well as universities and corporations. Today, accessibility has become important to almost all companies. We provide accessibility solutions to Fortune 1000 companies, small and medium enterprises, government, and education organizations across industries including retail, travel, hospitality, food services, automotive, financial services, and healthcare.

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