By Eden Anderson

Seyfarth Synopsis: A federal judge precluded the plaintiff from multiplying his statutory damages under the Unruh Act by his alleged number of visits to the defendant’s business.

California’s Unruh Civil Rights Act (“Unruh Act”) provides for the recovery of the greater of actual damages or $4,000 in statutory damages for “each particular occasion” of access denial.  (Civil Code § 55.56(f).)  Citing this statutory language, plaintiffs in disability access litigation frequently allege multiple visits to (or deterrence from visiting) a defendant’s property and cite the frequency of their visits as a basis for making unreasonable settlement demands.  For example, if a plaintiff claims to have visited a property on 15 occasions and encountered access barriers on each occasion, they will demand $60,000 plus attorneys’ fees to settle.

While some judges have awarded such relief, on June 16, 2021, Judge Beth Labson Freeman of the Northern District of California issued an order in Johnson v. Garlic Farm Truck Center, LLC capping the plaintiff’s statutory damages recovery to $4,000 in spite of allegations that the plaintiff visited the property and encountered access barriers on three occasions.

The defendant in Garlic Farm did not respond to the complaint and the court granted the plaintiff’s motion for default judgment.  In assessing the plaintiff’s request for $12,000 in statutory damages, the court questioned why the plaintiff would make three visits to a property he knew was in violation of disability access laws.  The court also found troubling the fact that the plaintiff’s counsel had filed over 5,000 Unruh Act cases in federal district courts in California, and that the Complaint inconsistently alleged that the access barriers “prevented [plaintiff] from returning to the business,” yet also that he had visited the property three times.  The court concluded the plaintiff’s “[b]ehavior,” the “incongruity” in his allegations, and the sheer volume of disability access cases his counsel was pursuing indicated that “Mr. Johnson is primarily interested in increasing statutory damages.”  The court thus limited statutory damages recovery to $4,000, noting that “[d]istrict courts in the Ninth Circuit have limited statutory damages under the Unruh Act when plaintiffs engage in this behavior.”

This decision is also notable because the Court’s concerns about the plaintiff’s tactics were raised sua sponte—by the Court on its own accord—and not by the defendant, who had not even appeared in the case.  The order also provides defendants a clear decision they can rely upon to counter unreasonable settlement demands.

Edited by Kristina Launey