The One Sentence Summary: The California Supreme Court held that a plaintiff is not required to allege that he or she requested equal treatment and the retailer refused in order to state a claim under the Unruh Civil Rights Act for gender-based price discrimination.
What They Were Fighting About: The plaintiffs were male patrons of a club that offered discounted admission to women, charging $20 admission for men and $15 for women. They paid the male admission price on several occasions and then sued alleging that the club’s pricing policy violated California’s Unruh Civil Rights Act. Civil Code section 52(a) contains a private right of action to enforce the Act. Section 51.6(b) provides: “No business establishment of any kind whatsoever may discriminate, with respect to the price charged for services of similar or like kind, against a person because of the person’s gender.” The trial court granted (affirmed by the court of appeal) defendant’s motion for judgment on the pleadings on the grounds that plaintiffs’ failure to allege that they requested and were refused the discounted admission price precluded any claim for price discrimination.
- The California Supreme Court reversed and held that plaintiffs stated a cause of action for unlawful price discrimination based on gender.
- Nothing in the statute requires a customer to specifically demand nondiscriminatory treatment and be denied same by a retailer in order to state a claim for violation of the Unruh Civil Rights Act. The plaintiffs were injured within the meaning of the Act when they presented themselves for admission and were charged the club’s nondiscounted male-only price. The defendant’s interpretation of the statute would be inconsistent with the Act’s policy of eliminating arbitrary discrimination in places of public accommodation.
- While acknowledging there might be some instances in which a compelling public policy justified differential treatment of male and female patrons, the court made clear that a retailer’s policy of offering gender-based price discounts would ordinarily constitute unlawful price discrimination.
- The court concluded by stating that nothing in its opinion should be construed as restricting potential equitable or constitutional defenses to any damages sought by a plaintiff under Civil Code section 52(a). This statement was a response to defendant’s argument that plaintiffs made repeated unannounced visits to the club on Ladies Day as a “shakedown” tactic to increase the statutory damages they could seek for violation of the Act.