No special deals for women, commission says

Ladies may still be welcome, but only if they pay full freight.

That’s what the Nevada Equal Rights Commission told a Las Vegas gym that offered free enrollment to women only.

The decision was aimed squarely at a promotion by Las Vegas Athletic Clubs, but it could have implications for bars, night clubs, strip joints and other Nevada businesses with sex-based pricing or access policies.

But for now it’s limited to an order by the commission for the gym to cease-and-desist with the “women enroll free” promotion, and some even doubt the enforceability of that order.

“The floodgates of litigation have opened,” said Todd Phillips, who instigated the case against Las Vegas Athletic Clubs in August 2007.

Phillips, a self-described “liberal civil rights attorney,” says he intends to continue pressing the matter until sex-based pricing is a thing of the past in Nevada.

He objected to the club’s discriminatory pricing policy as well as separate workout facilities it reserved for women only.

“If you allow a service to women, whatever it is you have to allow it for men,” said Phillips.

While the commission did characterize the gym’s price promotion as “an unlawful practice” under Nevada law, it didn’t take issue with the facilities nor seek to broaden the case.

Administrator Dennis Perea said the commission will only deal with challenges on a case-by-case basis, meaning it won’t apply the Las Vegas Athletic Clubs decision to other businesses.

But he also said there have already been at least two other challenges of Las Vegas-area business practices since the commission took on the sex-based pricing issue.

Perea wouldn’t describe the cases in detail because he says the information is private until it reaches a public hearing. He did say they are “the same idea” as the challenge in the Las Vegas Athletic Clubs case.

The case has raised eyebrows among owners of major night club and casino companies in Nevada.

They’re worried Phillips’ arguments will gain momentum and result in the government becoming more involved in pricing policies of private businesses.

“It is about using anti-discrimination laws to attack businesses that are trying to use pricing models to increase their business,” said MGM Mirage spokesman Alan Feldman.

Feldman said he doesn’t think “ladies night” promotions are unlawful discrimination. He compared them to special prices for children or senior citizens.

“The pricing promotions are used to increase activity among a group, not keep anyone out,” Feldman said.

Attorney Veronica Arechederra Hall attended the equal rights commission meeting Monday on behalf of several clients, including a major night club company.

Hall questioned the authority of the equal rights commission to enforce the order against Las Vegas Athletic Clubs, but added that she would advise clients to think more thoroughly about their company policies.

“I think they have to examine their practices and perhaps consider the risk of proceeding with such practices,” she said.

Gary Peck, executive director of the Nevada chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, also questioned the commission’s authority.

Peck said ACLU lawyers have reviewed Nevada law and found that the state has yet to enact a law to prevent discrimination based on sex when it comes to public accommodations.

Although the ACLU is fighting for such a law as well as more power for the Nevada Equal Rights Commission to enforce orders, for now Peck says the commission’s authority is in doubt.

“We honestly think it should be illegal to discriminate,” Peck said. “We are dismayed at the fact it is not.”

Dennis Leavitt, attorney for Las Vegas Athletic Clubs, said he would challenge the ruling.

“We feel they are dead wrong on the law and we are going to file for judicial review for district court,” Leavitt said.

He said the state law that covers public accommodations doesn’t prevent discrimination based on sex or age in order to preserve senior discounts, ladies nights and other price promotions.

Diana Hegeduis, chief deputy attorney general for Nevada, disagreed.

She pointed to statutes that set forth the mission of the equal rights commission, which include references to sex discrimination.

“The commission has the authority to interpret the statute they are mandated to enforce,” she said.

Contact reporter Benjamin Spillman at bspillman@reviewjournal.com or 702-477-3861.

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