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Best of Liz Benston

Gaming Guru

Liz Benston

Letting women in free might cross legal line

30 September 2008

LAS VEGAS, Nevada -- While lobbying to amend state law to prevent businesses from discriminating against gay and transgender customers, the American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada came to an embarrassing conclusion: Nevada is among a few states without a law protecting customers from sex discrimination by businesses.

Years ago, attorneys in other states used such laws to stamp out disparate pricing for men and women at bars, nightclubs and other businesses. "Ladies' night" lawsuits have generally succeeded.

It's easy to see which Nevada businesses would stand to lose the most from equal pricing laws.

Free or discounted admission for women is a key marketing strategy for casino nightclubs. Women draw men, who pay big bucks to enter these clubs and buy drinks for women. Women are eye candy, men are wallets. Simple stereotypes? Sure. And yet, casinos profit from well-accepted sexual stereotypes, including scantily-clad cocktail servers and go-go dancers.

That's why casino executives are paying close attention to Las Vegas civil rights attorney Todd Phillips.

Phillips, who moved here from Hollywood a few years ago, has made a business out of suing California businesses for charging men more than they charge women.

Last year, Phillips filed a sex discrimination complaint against the Las Vegas Athletic Club for charging men a $10 membership fee, while women enrolled for free. To his surprise, he was the first person to challenge a business for gender discrimination under Nevada's "public accommodation" law.

In August, the Nevada Equal Rights Commission's administrator found the gym's pricing was discriminatory. Within 45 days, the commission — an agency that largely settles claims confidentially — will hold a rare public hearing on Phillips' complaint, and the five-member commission will render a final ruling.

The public hearing is needed because there's confusion about the law, said Dennis Perea, the commission's administrator.

At issue are two laws dating from the 1960s. One is nearly identical to the federal law that prohibits businesses from discriminating on the basis of "race, color, religion, national origin or disability." States began to add gender to the list in the 1970s. Nevada never did.

The second law, some say, looks good on paper but lacks teeth. It states that it's against the "public policy of the State of Nevada" for businesses to discriminate based on race, religion, age, disability, national origin, ancestry, sexual orientation and gender.

Some say businesses have room to argue that the first law takes precedence over the second, or that the second law amounts to the state saying that sex discrimination is bad but not illegal.

Phillips calls that "tortured fiction" by people more interested in legal debate than civil rights.

The commission can decide to file for a court injunction against the gym, which has apparently abandoned its pricing policy. And that's about it.

In California, such claims are settled swiftly with demand letters. Individuals may seek attorney fees and a $4,000 penalty, which encourages both complaints and compliance, a prospect that concerns some legislators here.

Not Richard "Tick" Segerblom, an employment attorney and Las Vegas assemblyman, who hopes to strengthen the state's discrimination laws in the next legislative session.

Perea is crafting a bill to clarify state law. He is staring down a pile of complaints — triggered by Phillips' action — against nightclubs.

Phillips has become the butt of jokes from people who think he's a threat or a sham "men's rights" advocate. He argues that women are the unwitting victims of such pricing, which encourages predatory behavior, especially in nightclubs. Many local women, he says, have responded to his brand of progressivism with a secretive thumbs-up.

Gender-based pricing should be as unacceptable as, say, racially based pricing, Phillips says. Instead, it's considered quaint.

"We should recognize each other as human beings rather than see people as black, Puerto Rican, gay or male. What message are we sending the world if we, a world-class destination, treat customers differently?"