Damages for Unruh Act Violations

The Unruh Act authorizes a private action for actual damages, punitive damages (up to three times actual damages, but not less than $4,000), and attorneys’ fees for each violation. Actual damages include loss of earnings, medical expenses (including psychological expenses), as well as mental anguish, and pain and suffering. Punitive damages can be used as a way of punishing the wrongdoer.

The very expensive part here is the right to attorney’s fees if the plaintiff prevails. If the plaintiff only wins a nominal amount at trial, say $500, he is still deemed to have “prevailed.” As such, the plaintiff is still entitled to attorney’s fees. (This can run up to tens, if not hundreds of thousands of dollars!) In addition, a 2001 amendment increased the minimum amount of punitive damages to amount to $4,000.

Federal Civil Rights Violations

Much like the California’s Unruh Act, those rights that are protected by the United States Constitution are also actionable when violated. Federal civil rights violations are only actionable in court if the tortious act is committed by a person acting under “color of law.” That is, they are government employees or agents. Typically, these are police officers who might engage in excessive use of force or illegally detain a person for the wrong reasons.

However, you should be aware that if a security officer is “acting in concert” with law enforcement officers, they can be deemed to be “acting under color of law.” As such, they are state actors and may be liable under the federal civil rights statute, 42 U.S.C. §1983. Accordingly, just because you might be instructed by a police officer to take action, if that action proves to be discriminatory or a violation of the person’s civil rights, you and your employer could be dragged into court as a defendant in such a lawsuit, along with the police officer.