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Court Affirms Dismissal of Race, Sex Bias Suit

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Times Staff Writer

A sharply split state appellate court ruled Monday that a hotel desk clerk who called two black women “bitches” during a dispute over room rates could not be brought to trial for sex or race discrimination.

The court, in a 2 to 1 decision, upheld the dismissal of a state civil rights suit brought by the two women charging that the clerk had concluded the episode by remarking, “It’s always a pleasure doing business with bitches.”

“Without minimizing the comment’s pejorative sting, we note that it occurred at the very end of a prolonged dispute over the room rate, at approximately 3:30 a.m., and was an obvious expression of anger and exasperation,” Appellate Justice Betty Barry-Deal wrote in an opinion joined by Justice Robert W. Merrill. “We cannot conclude that the sentiment expressed by this remark was any evidence of racial or sexual discrimination.”

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In a 17-page dissent, Justice Clinton W. White said the case should have been allowed to go before a jury to determine whether the clerk and the hotel, as his employer, were guilty of unequal treatment.

White noted that the term at issue was “specifically used to show contempt towards women”--and that the circumstances were aggravated by the fact the two women were black.

“While the term ‘bitch’ is racially neutral, its impact is definitely accentuated when directed toward minorities already sensitized by generations of racial prejudice, bigotry and mistreatment,” White wrote.

White said that the court majority, “in its haste to affirm” dismissal of the case, had failed to heed a legal principle calling for jurors to decide whether such conduct was sufficiently “extreme or outrageous” to result in liability.

The case arose in 1980 after the two women, Margaret Bailey and Alice Henderson, sought to claim a special discount for airline employees at the Hyatt Regency Hotel here.

The women said they had made reservations and later telephoned to confirm before arriving at the hotel in the early morning hours. But the two clerks on duty said they were unaware of the special rates, which would have reduced the price of a room to $20 a night.

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After a long discussion and a 20-minute delay, the clerks offered to allow the women to check in at a rate of $60 and then pay them a refund if the hotel could verify the cheaper rate later in the morning.

The women agreed but Bailey wrote a note on the registration card alluding to the $20 rate--and when clerk Steven Stein insisted she also initial the $60 figure she refused. Bailey said Stein then “snatched” the card from her hand and called security guards to escort the two women out of the hotel.

Bailey said she told the clerk to “have a pleasant today and a pleasant tomorrow” and that he would be “hearing from” her soon--to which Stein allegedly replied, “It’s always a pleasure doing business with bitches.”

Bailey said also that aside from that remark, her discussion with Stein was calm and courteous.

The two women brought suit against the hotel and the two clerks alleging sex and racial discrimination, assault and battery and “intentional infliction of emotional distress.” The case was dismissed in San Francisco Superior Court.

The appellate majority said there was “absolutely no evidence” that the clerks dealt with other customers differently then they had Bailey and Henderson and that Stein’s use of the word at issue was “the only remark which could conceivably be interpreted as reflecting bias.”

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