Sex-based promotions such as so-called “ladies’ night” discounts at bars amount to sex discrimination and violate state civil rights law, the state Supreme Court ruled Thursday.
In a unanimous opinion by Chief Justice Rose Elizabeth Bird, the court said price breaks granted solely to women discriminate against men and work to degrade both sexes by reinforcing “harmful stereotypes.”
Likewise, a business that offers special inducements to attract more male patrons at the expense of women also would violate the Unruh Civil Rights Act provision barring sex discrimination, the court concluded.
“The Legislature has clearly stated that business establishments must provide equal advantages and privileges to all customers no matter what their sex,” Bird wrote, paraphrasing the civil rights legislation.
Reversing an Orange County Superior Court judge and a Court of Appeal, the chief justice said:
“Courts are often hesitant to upset traditional practices such as the sex-based promotional discounts at issue here. Some may consider such practices to be of minimal importance or to be essentially harmless. Yet, many other individuals, men and women alike, are greatly offended by such discriminatory practices.”
Thursday’s case began in 1979, when Dennis Koire, then an 18-year-old Anaheim student, became angry that he was excluded from a bar when his date, who was a year older, was allowed in.
He said in an interview Thursday that he then started noticing similar discriminatory situations elsewhere. Several Orange County car washes, for example, offered women discounts of 15 cents to $1.80.
When he asked one proprietor for the same discount, he said he was told, “Come back when you’re wearing a skirt. Or bring your mother and have her drive.”
He became particularly upset when he heard a radio advertisement for Jezebel’s, which said the Anaheim bar was offering free admission to young women 18 to 21. Jezebel’s also waived the $2 cover charge on its ladies’ nights.
Koire said that when he called one of the nightclubs to complain, a man responded by saying, “Sue me,” and then hung up. Koire took the challenge, and got help from Ronald Talmo, then head of the American Civil Liberties Union in Orange County. In all, he sued 11 car washes and seven bars.
Impact of Ruling
“People say, ‘What’s the big deal? Who does it hurt? Are you damaged?’ I’d say, ‘Yeah, I felt really bad.’ And I guess I did something about it,” said Koire, a 25-year-old store clerk.
Talmo called the ruling a “great statement by the court that sex discrimination has no relevancy.”
William Elliot, who represented one of the car washes that lost, also said he agreed with the ruling.
The lawyers said they knew of no other state high court that has reached a similar conclusion, although Bird pointed to a 1972 ban on “ladies’ days” at Yankee Stadium imposed by the New York state Human Rights Appeal Board.
The high court in Washington state last year upheld discounts for women at Seattle Supersonics basketball games, noting that “women do not manifest the same interest in basketball that men do.” Bird called the statement by the Washington court “sexual stereotyping.”
Some Deals Allowed
The California court noted that promotions still can be used, so long as they are not based on sex. Children can still get price discounts, as can senior citizens, the court noted. Additionally, a business could offer discounts to patrons who present a special coupon, wear a certain color shirt or have a particular bumper sticker, the court said.
“The key is that the discounts must be applicable alike to persons of every sex, color and race, instead of being contingent on some arbitrary, class-based generalization,” Bird wrote.
The Unruh Act says all people “no matter what their sex . . . are entitled to the full and equal accommodations, advantages, facilities, privileges, or services in all business establishments.” Under the statute, people who are discriminated against can sue and collect at least $250 for each violation, plus any additional damages they can prove.
The court dismissed the businesses’ contention that the discounts were legal because they promote legitimate social goals by encouraging men and women to socialize and because they help women, who generally earn less than men.
Profit Motive Seen
“The clubs’ profit motive is obvious,” Bird wrote. “Jezebel’s waives the cover charge for women not because women on the average earn 59 cents for every dollar earned by men but because it wants to earn as many dollars as it can for itself.”
Bird also criticized the argument that the promotions were legitimate because they helped the establishments prosper. Such reasoning, Bird said, could result in discrimination against other minority groups.
“It would be no less a violation of the act,” Bird wrote, “for an entrepreneur to charge all homosexuals, or all non-homosexuals, reduced rates in his or her restaurant or hotel in order to encourage one group’s patronage and, thereby, increase profits.”
Justices Malcolm Lucas and Otto Kaus, whose last day on the court was Wednesday but who will stay on until he finishes his remaining cases, indicated that they agreed with the conclusion but may have disagreed with some of the majority’s reasoning or wording. (Koire v. Metro Car Wash et al., L.A. 32052)
Times staff writer Steve Emmons in Orange County contributed to this story.