Friday, June 1, 2007
Court Revives Claim That Club Was Biased Against Men
By TINA BAY, Staff Writer
Business patrons alleging discrimination need not show that they demanded and were refused equal treatment in order to obtain redress under the Unruh Civil Rights Act, the California Supreme Court unanimously ruled yesterday.
The justices reversed a ruling by Div. Five of this district’s Court of Appeal, which held a group of male club patrons could not recover damages for allegedly discriminatory pricing because they had not asked to be charged the same rate as female guests.
In consolidated actions, Glendale attorney Marc Angelucci, along with Edgar Pacas, Elton Campbell and Jeff Kent, sued the Century Supper Club—now the Century Club—alleging they were charged an admission fee higher than that charged to women when they visited the establishment on several occasions in June and July 2002.
Angelucci is president of the National Coalition of Free Men, a nonprofit organization that fights what it claims to be the unfair treatment of men in a variety of areas including family law, criminal sentencing, public health policy and the media.
The plaintiffs claimed they were charged higher admission prices because of their sex. For example, two of them were allegedly charged $20 for admission on one visit even though the fee for women was $15, and were charged $20 on another visit two days later even though women were given free entry that day.
The men sought statutory damages under Sec. 52(a) of the act, which provides that any business establishment denying access or services to customers on any discriminatory basis is liable for statutory damages of $4,000 per violation.
Century moved for judgment on the pleadings maintaining the plaintiffs were not entitled to recovery under Sec. 52(a) because they had not asked the club to charge them at the same rate given to female patrons.
Retired Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Joseph R. Kalin, sitting by assignment, granted the defendant’s request.
Affirming the judgment, Div. Five reasoned the plaintiffs were not “denied” their rights within the meaning of Sec. 52(a) because they did not suffer refusal of an express demand that the club accord them equal treatment.
The panel also noted that requiring plaintiffs to demand equal treatment would ensure they are using the law to punish genuine misconduct rather than exploit businesses for financial gain.
Writing for the high court, Chief Justice Ronald M. George rejected the view that the “denial” of rights referred only to a business establishment’s response to the demand for equal accommodation.
“We note that the federal Constitution uses the term ‘deny’ in the equal protection clause and other provisions, but we are unaware of any authority supporting the startling proposition that a right acknowledged by these provisions is not ‘denied’ if the victim is a passive sufferer of discrimination rather than a person who expressly demands his or her rights and is refused,” he said.
The Court of Appeal’s position would contravene the Act’s goal of eliminating arbitrary, invidious discrimination in places of public accommodation, he added, explaining:
“Contrary to the purposes of the Act to eradicate discrimination, the Court of Appeal’s interpretation leaves business establishments free to advertise and provide gender-based discounts and, presumably, to engage in other forms of discrimination that violate the Act, so long as these establishments agree to provide equal treatment to those customers knowledgeable and assertive enough to demand it.”
George pointed out that a demand-and-refusal prerequisite would deny relief to those who discover only after the fact that they have suffered discrimination, or those who are discriminated against when there is no one present to receive and answer a demand for equal treatment.
The justices held the lower courts’ interpretation of the act was “fundamentally inconsistent” with their legal analysis in Koire v. Metro Car Wash (1985) 40 Cal.3d 24. That case involved a man who sued under the act challenging “Ladies’ Day” discounts offered by certain establishments.
In Koire, George said, the court ruled gender-based price discounts violated the act, that arbitrary gender discrimination is per se injurious, and that the particular plaintiff suffered actual injury because he paid more for admission or services than female patrons.
The justice addressed the perception that Angelucci and the three other men were professional plaintiffs who shake down business entities over technical violations to earn their living—similar to “bounty hunters” who have brought a deluge of suits under the Americans with Disabilities Act.
“Although we share to some degree the concerns voiced by the trial court and the appellate court below and by defendant and its amici curiae regarding the potential for abusive litigation being brought under the Act, these concerns do not supply a justification for our inserting additional elements of proof into the cause of action defined by the statute,” he wrote.
The justice noted the possibility that “equitable considerations” may be applied to reduce statutory damages that accrue for repeated violations.
Justices Joyce L. Kennard, Marvin R. Baxter, Ming W. Chin, Carlos R. Moreno and Carol A. Corrigan concurred in the opinion.
Justice Kathryn M. Werdegar concurred separately to say she did not join the majority’s tangential discussion about equitable defenses to statutory damage claims.
Angelucci told the MetNews he was thankful the court “applied the law rather than reactionism.”
“This is a victory against judicial activism and in favor of both civil rights and
gender equality, especially in light of the growing number of hotels that are excluding men from entire floors and lounges, casinos that are excluding men from poker tournaments, and other businesses excluding or discriminating against men in other ways,” he said.
Alfred G. Rava, who argued before the Supreme Court on behalf of the plaintiffs, added the ruling meant that victims of discrimination do not have to “lower themselves and ask for equal treatment” in order to bring valid claims.
Sacramento attorney Timothy Sandefur of the Pacific Legal Foundation, which along with Corinthian Colleges submitted an amicus brief on behalf of the defendant, told the MetNews the ruling was disappointing, though not surprising.
“I think that it exposes business to what in this case was obviously a shakedown lawsuit designed simply to enrich the attorneys in question, without any serious concern for the public welfare,” he said.
The proposition that the civil rights laws were written to make ladies’ nights illegal trivializes and makes a mockery of them, Sandefur said, explaining:
“The civil rights laws were passed with the important intent to eliminate invidious discrimination against oppressed minorities, and instead they’re being for commercial gain when the conduct is not something that harms anybody. Ladies’ Nights are not a form of oppression against women.”
Santa Monica attorney Steven L. Martin, who argued for the club in the Supreme Court, did not return MetNews phone calls.
In addition to Rava, Los Angeles attorney Morse Mehrban represented the plaintiffs on appeal.
The National Coalition of Free Men, Consumer Attorneys of California, Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund and American Civil Liberties Union submitted amicus briefs on behalf of the plaintiffs.
The case is Angelucci v. Century Supper Club,, 07 S.O.S. 2890.
Copyright 2007, Metropolitan News Company