Are "Ladies' Nights" Discriminatory?

A New York attorney has filed a class action lawsuit against several Manhattan nightclubs, alleging that by hosting "ladies nights" they are engaged in unlawful gender discrimination. He is seeking a declaratory judgment that the nightclub policies in question constituted "state action" due to their regulation by the state Alcoholic Beverage Division. Such a finding would be necessary for the nightclubs to be liable under Section 1983.

He is looking to the case of Seidenberg and DeCrow v. McSorleys' Old Ale House, Inc., 317 F.Supp 593, as precedent for finding the existence of "state action" by bars and nightclubs. The U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, where Hollander has filed his complaint, ruled in 1970 that state action existed when McSorleys' Old Ale House refused to serve two women.

Hollander also foresees an "uphill battle" in classifying the action as invidious discrimination, since he is arguing on behalf of men and not women, whom he says the U.S. Supreme Court has given "preferential treatment for past invidious, economic discrimination."

"Whether this case succeeds or fails," says Hollander, "it will result in a much needed victory for men." . . .

Hollander is seeking to be named class representative for all men charged more money or burdened by stricter time restraints than women at these clubs over the last three years. He has as evidence e-mail advertisements for promotions held on the nights he attended these clubs and according to Hollander, these e-mails advertise discriminatory admittance policies for men versus women. The case seeks an injunction to end these policies.

The general manager for one of the nightclubs being sued labeled the suit "ridiculous."

Ladies' Night and the 14th Amendment:

Jonathan Adler posts on the extremely weak class action lawsuit claiming that ladies nights at private night clubs violate the 14th Amendment. Hopefully, the district court will dismiss this seriously misguided lawsuit. Attorney Roy Den Hollender's lawsuit is flawed because the Fourteenth Amendment clearly does not ban this kind of "sex discrimination" by private parties and because certification of the class would violate the rules governing class action lawsuits.

First, the constitutional point. I will cover the class action issue in a follow-up post.

The Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment clearly says that a "state" may not "deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws." The Amendment does not ban discrimination by private parties, only that undertaken by states. Over the years, courts have sometimes ruled that private racial or sex discrimination can be imputed to states in cases where the private actor is actually an agent of the government or otherwise closely entertwined with it. However, Hollender is claiming that night club owners who institute ladies' nights are state actors merely because they are regulated and licensed by the government. This theory was specifically rejected by the Supreme Court in the Civil Rights Cases of 1883, which held that the Fourteenth Amendment did not give Congress the power to regulate common carriers, "places of public accomodation" (e.g. - hotels, restaurants) despite the fact that most such businesses were highly regulated often required to have government licenses. In his dissent, Justice John Marshall Harlan strongly emphasized the regulated and licensed nature of the businesses in question, a consideration that failed to sway the majority. Although criticized by many academics, the Civil Rights Cases remain binding precedent, and were reaffirmed by the Court in United States v. Morrison in 2000.

Moreover, there is good reason to believe that The Civil Rights Cases majority was right to hold that licensing and regulation alone do not equate to state action. Almost all important private activities are licensed or regulated to some extent. If Hollender's argument prevails, all would be subject to the same restrictions on ethnic, religious, and sex discrimination as are imposed by the Fourteenth Amendment on government. For example, marriage requires a state-issued license. On Hollender's theory, therefore, the Constitution would forbid individuals from engaging in racial, ethnic, or religious discrimination in deciding whom to marry, since the Equal Protection Clause surely forbids such discrimination by government. If the state bans Jews from marrying non-Jews, that is a clear violation of the Fourteenth Amendment under modern doctrine. Yet if licensing is enough to turn a private action into state action, then a Jew who marries a fellow Jew after rejecting gentile suitors solely on religious grounds would be a state actor engaging in unconstitutional discrimination.

It may be that some extreme forms of licensing or regulation do involve the state so pervasively in private activity as to convert that activity into state action for Fourteenth Amendment purposes. But that cannot be true for all types of regulation and licensing, as Hollender's theory requires.

Hollender is therefore right to foresee an "uphill" battle for his suit. He is, wrong, however to attribute his likely difficulties to the fact that "he is arguing on behalf of men and not women, whom he says the U.S. Supreme Court has given 'preferential treatment for past invidious, economic discrimination.'"

In reality, many of the Supreme Court's most important Equal Protection Clause precedents striking down laws that discriminate on the basis of sex involved discrimination against men. These include landmark decisions such as Craig v. Boren, the 1976 case that instituted the current "intermediate scrutiny" standard for government sex discrimination, and Mississippi University for Women v. Hogan (1982), an important case that ruled that an all-female state university was unconstitutional.

In the area of race discrimination, the Supreme Court has indeed given somewhat looser constitutional scrutiny to programs that benefit racial minorities as opposed to whites. That is not, however, true of the Court's constitutional scrutiny of programs that discriminate in favor of women relative to those that benefit men (the Courts statutory consideration of affirmative action for women under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 is a different matter).

UPDATE: As commenter and lawprof Eric Muller points out, the Supreme Court's 1972 Moose Lodge (which held that a Moose Lodge was not a state actor merely because it had a state liquor license) decision probably undercuts Hollender's position even more clearly than the Civil Rights Cases do.

The Ladies Night Case and the Rules for Class Action Lawsuits:

In my last post, I considered the constitutional flaws in attorney Roy Hollender's suit claiming that ladies nights at night clubs are unconstitutional sex discrimination. In this one, I explain why his proposed lawsuit also violates the rules governing class actions. According to the National Law Journal, Hollender is "seeking to be named class representative for all men charged more money or burdened by stricter time restraints than women at [four New York night] clubs over the last three years."

A class action is a law suit where one "named plaintiff" represents the interests of other individuals who are not directly involved in the case, but have suffered from the same allegedly illegal behavior that the plaintiff is seeking to prevent or rectify. Under the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, a class can only be certified by a district court if it meets the standards set out in FRCP Rule 23. In this case, the crucial requirement is Rule 23(A)(4), which requires the court to ensure that the class representative "will fairly and adequately protect the interests of the class."

Hollender clearly fails to meet this requirement because many of the members of the class in question ("men charged more money or burdened by stricter time restraints than women" at the night clubs in question) actually benefit from these practices. At the risk of belaboring the obvious, a key purpose of ladies nights at night clubs is to benefit (heterosexual) men. Many night clubs and bars become relatively unappealing to men because the male-female ratio is too high, reducing male patrons' chances of picking up a date. By attracting more women, ladies' nights improve the dating odds for male patrons. To be sure, there are men such as Hollender who decry ladies nights as invidious discrimination. But many of the men belonging to the class specified in Hollender's suit probably prefer a night club with ladies night that increases the percentage of female customers to a nondiscriminatory policy that results in a more unbalanced male-female ratio. Many, perhaps the vast majority, of the men in the class Hollender proposes to represent have interests diametrically opposed to the result he seeks to achieve. For that reason, the district court should refuse to certify his proposed class.

Hollender says that "[w]hether this case succeeds or fails, it will result in a much needed victory for men." True enough (except maybe for the "much needed" part). If he wins, men who agree with him will get a "victory," but those who benefit from ladies nights will be harmed. If he loses, the male beneficiaries of ladies nights will have reason to celebrate. Since there are male night club customers with interests on both sides of the suit, Hollender should not be certified as an acceptable representative of this class.

UPDATE: I have corrected a minor but annoying typo in the first sentence of the post.

Related Posts (on one page):

  1. The Ladies Night Case and the Rules for Class Action Lawsuits:
  2. Ladies' Night and the 14th Amendment:
  3. Are "Ladies' Nights" Discriminatory?