California extends protections against discrimination for immigration status, language and citizenship

September 18, 2015

Employment Law Alert

Author(s): Jeffrey M. Tanenbaum

California just significantly expanded the scope of its anti-discrimination law. This alert discusses what employers doing business in California need to know.

California has now significantly expanded the scope of anti-discrimination law—and it has done so with remarkably little attention. On September 8, 2015, California Governor Edmund G. Brown signed SB 600 into law, barring discrimination based on immigration status, primary language and citizenship. The law expands and clarifies existing protections granted by California’s Unruh Civil Rights Act, California Civil Code sections 51 through 51.3.

The Unruh Act ensures that “all persons within the jurisdiction of [California] are entitled to full and equal accommodation in all business establishments regardless of their sex, race, color, religion, ancestry, national origin, disability, medical condition, genetic information, marital status, or sexual orientation.” The new law now expands that list of protected classifications.

SB 600, co-sponsored by the California Civil Rights Coalition and the Mexican American Legal Defense Fund (MALDEF), most notably extends existing consumer protections to immigrants in California. It has done so at a time when immigration issues appear poised to be a heated issue in the 2016 presidential election. With this new law, along with other recent legislation such as AB60, which allows undocumented immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses, California has staked out a clear public policy in favor of inclusion and immigrant integration.

There are, however, some limitations. SB 600 does not require the provision of services or documents in a language other than English, beyond that which is otherwise required by other provisions of federal, state or local law. Further, verification of immigration status and any discrimination based upon verified immigration status, where required by federal law, will not constitute a violation of the Unruh Act.

Although the Unruh Act is intended to protect consumers—not employees—from arbitrary discrimination by both public and private business, and has not been interpreted to cover employment relationships, see Stamps v. Superior Court, 136 Cal. App. 4th 1441(2006), employers should be mindful of SB 600. As a practical matter, to help ensure compliance with this new law employers will want to train employees on these new protections and their duties not to discriminate against customers on the basis of any classification protected under the Unruh Act. And business can expect to see intensified scrutiny with regard to the equality of all persons with regard to access to the advantages and services of business establishments.

The foregoing has been prepared for the general information of clients and friends of the firm. It is not meant to provide legal advice with respect to any specific matter and should not be acted upon without professional counsel. If you have any questions or require any further information regarding these or other related matters, please contact your regular Nixon Peabody LLP representative. This material may be considered advertising under certain rules of professional conduct.

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