In the most recent case of a California Court finding that women-only gyms are illegal, On March 18, 2011, in the Superior Court for Solano County, Judge Ramona J. Garrett, who happens to be a woman, ruled a women-only health club violated California’s Unruh Civil Rights Act (Lady of America Trial Court Decision). The Unruh Act, passed in 1959, but derived from California’s 1897 codification of the state’s common law doctrines of equal treatment, provides all consumers “no matter what their sex, race, color, religion, ancestry, national origin, disability, medical condition, marital status, or sexual orientation” are entitled to equal “accommodations, advantages, facilities, privileges, or services in all business establishments.”
Champions of equal rights for men and women, such as the National Coalition For Men and its members, have long used California’s Unruh Act in administrative agency and civil court actions to support of California’s strong public policy to eradicate sex discrimination. This includes NCFM Secretary and attorney Al Rava assisting in the representation of women in a class action against a chain of hair salons for charging women more than men for haircuts, no matter the length or style of the client’s hair. ( Order For Final Approval of Master Cuts Settlement.) The hair salon chain agreed to charge customers the same price for the same type of haircut, and settle the class action for an amount not to exceed $1.75 million.
Many NCFM members have used the Unruh Act to successfully sue California businesses that charged men more than women for food, drinks, car washes, billiards, bowling, golf, target practice, skateboarding, skiing, bicycling events, airline travel, concerts, and nightclub cover charges. NCFM members also often work with state agencies and officials, such as the ABC or attorneys general, to stop many sex-based marketing promotions such as Ladies’ Day or Ladies’ Night events that treat male and female patrons unequally.
Regarding health clubs that treat male and female members unequally, Mr. Rava represented a class of men who sued a California chain of fifteen fitness centers with women-only exercise areas in their fourteen otherwise coed gyms and with one women-only gym, for violating the Unruh Act by charging men the same monthly dues as female members, but the men received lesser accommodations, advantages, facilities, privileges, or services than did the female members. The fitness chain agreed to open its formerly women-only exercise areas, equipment, and gym to all members, no matter their sex, in a settlement valued at $5 million for the class of male members. ( Final Approval Order and Judgment Family Fitness)
This follows a judgment obtained a few years earlier by NCFM member Phillip Kottle through California’s Department of Fair Employment & Housing (“DFEH”), the State agency charged with preventing discrimination in places of public accommodation, against a Santa Rosa women-only health club for violating the Unruh Act (DFEH and Phillip Kottle v. Body Central Judgment in Sonoma County Superior Court). The DFEH also negotiated a settlement agreement with a Gold’s Gym to open its women-only exercise area and equipment to men ( Gold’s Gym Settlement with DFEH).
When asked about otherwise coed health clubs with exclusively women-only exercise areas and equipment, NCFM President Harry Crouch said, “It’s morally and legally wrong to charge everyone the same price for something, but then give one group of people less than what they paid for, based on their sex. But that’s exactly what’s happening with these women-only workout areas and equipment. Men and women pay the same price for their memberships, but one group is given inferior access to the exercise areas and equipment.”
In the recent Solano County Superior Court action, judge Ramona Garrett was asked to rule on a dispute concerning a lease agreement between a Lady of America women-only fitness center franchisee and its landlord. The franchisee, after entering into a franchise agreement with the Lady of America franchisor, and signing a lease agreement with the landlord, learned single-sex health clubs were unlawful in California because they violated California’s Unruh Civil Rights Act, codified as Civil Code section 51.
Neither the franchisee nor the landlord knew such single-sex health clubs violated California law at the time the parties entered into the lease agreement. Therefore, because the franchisee could not lawfully operate a single-sex gym in California, it closed and stopped paying rent, with several years left on its lease.
Judge Garrett rescinded or canceled the lease on the basis of mutual mistake of law by both parties when they entered into the lease, because they mistakenly understood the operation of the franchisee’s leased premises was not illegal. The judge found that “at the time the lease was entered into, the operation of a single-sex fitness facility was discriminatory, and therefore a violation of the Unruh Civil Rights Act. Moreover, it was and is legally impossible and impracticable for [the franchisee’s] facility to comply with the Unruh Civil Rights Act and provide equal membership privileges, benefits, and accommodations to men.”
California law is clear: Single-sex health clubs and coed health clubs with exercise areas or equipment set aside for the exclusive use of men or women violate the State’s equal accommodations laws, just like areas or equipment set aside for the exclusive use of a group based on race, religion, or sexual orientation would violate the same laws.