WASHINGTON, D.C. – Attorney General Karl A. Racine today submitted a friend-of-the-court brief arguing that the District of Columbia’s Human Rights Act (DCHRA) prohibits discrimination by all businesses and institutions that operate in the District, including those that operate online or otherwise without physical locations. The brief, filed in the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, does not support either party in the case. Rather, it argues for a proper interpretation of District law. In the brief, AG Racine urges the Court to reject a lower court decision stating that the DCHRA’s ban on discrimination in places of public accommodation applies only to businesses with physical locations in the city.
“While we are not supporting either party in this case, it is important that the Office of the Attorney General defend local laws that are crucial in fighting discrimination in the District,” said AG Racine. “We strongly believe that the District’s Human Rights Act protects residents from illegal discrimination by all businesses and institutions that operate within our borders, whether they are online or brick-and-mortar.”
The District of Columbia filed this amicus brief in Freedom Watch, Inc. v. Google Inc. in support of neither party. This lawsuit was initially filed by conservative activists against the nation’s largest technology firms, alleging that these companies were conspiring to suppress their political views. One of their claims was brought under the DCHRA, one of the strongest civil rights laws in the country. The DCHRA prohibits discrimination based on protected traits in employment, housing, educational institutions, and public accommodations (businesses and other institutions and organizations that are generally open to the public). Protected traits include race, religion, national origin, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, disability, political affiliation, and place of residence.
In this case, the activists argued that the firms’ websites and digital platforms are “places of public accommodation” and that they were being denied “full and equal enjoyment” of the firms’ services because of their political affiliation or religion. When the case was dismissed, the court held that the DCHRA did not apply to the technology companies because an “alleged place of public accommodation must be a physical location.”
The Office of the Attorney General (OAG) is not taking a position on the underlying claims in this case, but it filed this brief to argue that the court was incorrect in holding that “places of public accommodation” must be physical locations and that holding should be reversed. OAG argues that the DCHRA was intended to broadly protect residents from many types of discrimination, and that limiting the law’s reach to only physical locations would be irrational and self-defeating. For example, under this interpretation, a lawncare company could refuse to work at the homes of black District residents, an online bank could refuse to open accounts for District women, or a website-design business could refuse to work with gay District residents.
In the brief, OAG also argues that “places of public accommodation” have always included businesses and institutions that do not have fixed District locations—like mail-order catalogs and traveling locksmiths—and that websites and online businesses are no different.
A copy of OAG’s brief is available at: https://oag.dc.gov/sites/default/files/2019-10/Freedom-Watch-v-Google-Amicus.pdf
Civil Rights Resources
OAG protects the civil rights of District residents by bringing lawsuits to challenge discrimination, advocating for legislation to strengthen antidiscrimination laws, and engaging in educational community outreach so that residents know their rights. Learn more about illegal discrimination and how OAG is working to defend your civil rights.
If you believe you have been a victim of discrimination, you may contact the OAG by:
- Calling OAG at (202) 727-3400
- E-mailing the Civil Rights Section at OAGCivilRights@dc.gov
- Mailing OAG, ATTN: Civil Rights Section at 441 4th Street N.W., Suite 600S, Washington, D.C. 20001
OAG is working to bolster the District’s effectiveness in enforcing the HRA on a larger scale. In the last year, OAG has filed lawsuits against Evolve LLC and Curtis Investment Group, landlords that unlawfully discriminated against low-income renters, and reached a settlement with Renewal by Andersen, a window company that had illegally refused to do business in certain District neighborhoods. OAG also called on major online apartment rental listing companies to help fight housing discrimination on their platforms, and held several Civil Rights Listening Sessions across the District.
OAG’s goal is to ensure equal treatment and meaningful opportunity for all District residents by complementing the work of the Office of Human Rights (OHR), the primary District agency that investigates individual complaints of discrimination. You can file a complaint with OHR at https://ohr.dc.gov/ or call 202-727-4559.