In Nevada, people have the right to complain. People in this free state also retain the right to pay that complaint no notice. Until, that is, a governing body steps in and forces them to. Which in the end might be the case with one complaint, filed with the Nevada Equal Rights Commission this past August 18, against a prominent health club here in town.
This complaint may force countless people to take heed of the issue it raises—that of sex discrimination throughout the city of Las Vegas.
In specific, Todd Phillips, a lawyer who moved to Las Vegas from California a year ago, says he had his civil rights violated last May 1, when he went to apply for a membership to the Las Vegas Athletic Club’s northwest location. His sign-up fee was $10, while a common promotion for the club allowed women to join for free, and inside the club there is a women’s-only workout room. Both facts, he claims, are violations of the state law against discrimination.
Nevada Revised Statute 233.010 reads: “It is hereby declared to be public policy ... to foster the right of all persons reasonably to seek and be granted services in places of public accommodation without discrimination, distinction or restriction because of race, religious creed, color, age, sex, disability, sexual orientation, national origin or ancestry.”
Whereby “public accommodation,” according to NRS 651.050, encapsulates most, if not all, private businesses, including “any gymnasium, health spa, or other place of exercise or recreation.”
On these grounds Phillips took action. “What if we substituted ‘whites’ for ‘ladies,’ or what if there was a ‘Jews-only workout room’?” he says. “People wouldn’t stand for that.”
He says he would have sued LVAC but could not, for in the state of Nevada one must exhaust all administrative remedies before filing a civil-rights lawsuit in district court, and that includes going through the NERC. It is there that his case is pending.
“We do not discriminate,” says Chad Smith, executive vice president of Las Vegas Athletic Club. “We treat our women special. We go above and beyond to be sensitive to our women’s needs.”
Moreover, he says: “We have a club within the club designed with women in mind, because they have different bodies, different mechanics, different needs than men. We hire women’s training specialists and women’s coordinators to ensure their comfort. We even go as far as to light our parking lots to the point of getting in trouble with the city because we want to make sure our women feel safe at night.”
Smith says that national stats show gyms are typically composed of less than 25 percent females, and he believes that is because gyms do not accommodate them.
“Sure, there is economics involved—we are a business,” says Smith, “but we go out of our way to let women know that we care about them.”
The health club has until October 23 to respond to Phillips’ complaint.
It’s a quintessential “ladies night” complaint (a name given to the various business promotions that offer discounts to women), and it is, as far as anyone can tell, a first for Nevada. Smith says he has never received a complaint, formal or informal, like it. Furthermore, Maureen Cole, deputy administrator of the NERC, says that, as far as she knows, there is no case law in Nevada for such a complaint.
Thus, there is no established precedent in this state to which Phillips’ complaint can be compared. “I think I’m the first person in Nevada to bring this up,” says Phillips, who has worked as an attorney in California for 14 years, handling several discrimination—including “ladies nights”—cases.
The Nevada State Legislature just amended NRS 233 to include sex as a form of discrimination in 2005.
The NERC has solicited a response from LVAC to the complaint. A mediator from the commission will try to reconcile the two parties and work out a private settlement. If that fails, the commission will initiate its own investigation into the matter.
“We have no intentions of settling with this man,” says Smith.
Without speaking on the specifics of Phillips’ complaint, Cole says that in lack of a prior Nevada Supreme Court ruling on such a sex discrimination case, these types of complaints can be difficult to resolve.
“There are bona fide private clubs to which—maybe—[the sex discrimination law] might not be applicable,” says Cole. “We have to look into the facts of each complaint. It’s a case-by-case thing.”
If the NERC finds that Phillips’ complaint is valid, the commission possesses the authority to order the LVAC to stop its “ladies night” practices. If the NERC does not find the complaint valid, Phillips may take his gripe to district court.
And that’s where sweeping changes in the culture of our state—and in Las Vegas above all—could begin.
Rumjungle, Tabu, Tangerine, House of Blues, the Red Room—almost every club and bar in this town offers “ladies night”-type discounts and privileges, and just about all these businesses advertise their “ladies night” promotions without reservation. It’s the way things are done in Las Vegas.
“I’m going after every one of them,” Phillips says. “I don’t mind being public enemy No. 1, because I believe one guy should have the right in this country to object and hold up the law.”
Club owners and personnel say the reason for the “ladies nights” promotions could not be more simple: Where the women go, the men will follow.
“We’ve never received a single complaint,” says Michael Taing, owner of the Red Room Saloon, which runs an “’80s for Ladies” promotion on Friday nights, when women drink for free. “The girls like it because it makes for great, fun nights; the guys like it because there are more hot women—or, if they already have a girlfriend, it’s cheaper for them; and everyone wins because it is just a much better atmosphere with so many people together.”
It’s been a common practice in town for as long as anyone can remember, and in Las Vegas’ competitive club-and-bar market, it is all but necessary, several owners say.
“People tell me everyone’s doing it,” says Phillips. “But just because everyone is breaking the law, does that make it right?”
He adds that he has yet to hear any legitimate reasons of business to defend the practice of sex discrimination. Profitability has never been a sufficient reason to discriminate, he says.
“People think it’s an innocuous thing, a cavalier thing,” he says. “Nevada is ignorant and backwards.”
While no court in Nevada has deemed “ladies night” a discriminatory practice, the California Supreme Court, in 1985, when presented with a similar sex-discrimination case against a car wash that offered women discounted services, known as Koire v. Metro Car Wash, held that “a business establishment’s policy of offering price discounts to female patrons purely on the basis of gender ordinarily constitutes unlawful discrimination against male patrons within [California’s sexual discrimination] law,” which reads almost identical to Nevada’s.
Moreover, the California judges concluded that the law applies to both business access and patron treatment.
Since the time of the Metro Car Wash ruling, “ladies nights” promotions have come to an effective end in California—even in its bars and nightclubs.
Phillips himself has played a large part in that. A discrimination lawyer, he has brought complaints against several California businesses regarding sex discrimination, and he has never lost.
“Nine out of 10 businesses change their practices as soon as I send them a letter,” he says. “It rarely goes to court, because their lawyers see that they are so clearly in violation of the law.”
But that, of course, is California.
In New Jersey, three years ago, a similar state Supreme Court ruling against the practice of “ladies nights” in restaurants—on the grounds of sex discrimination—stirred an uproar in the populace. Gillespie v. Coastline Restaurant even incited the state’s governor to come out against the ruling, saying that the end of “ladies night” in the state “reflects a complete lack of common sense.”
According to ABC News, there are currently more than a dozen “ladies night” cases making their rounds through the courts of various states in the country. Those complaints are waiting for Supreme Court rulings to establish the law of their respective lands.
In both California and New Jersey, supreme court justices held that the only legitimate business reasons for discrimination are those which preserve patrons’ safety and public health. They cannot be arbitrary.
“Nevada still thinks it’s the wild wild West,” says Phillips. “It is so backwards.”
While that is arguable, Nevada has no doubt held on to its frontier identity since its 19th-century inception. And it has no doubt shown an intransigence toward conforming to the ways of other states.
“It’s in our entire culture around here to go above and beyond to treat women special,” says Smith, of the LVAC. “If the state Supreme Court says we can’t be sensitive to women’s needs, I just can’t see the community agreeing with that.”
Phillips says that he has no intentions of changing the ways or cultural identity of Nevada, a state in which he does not have a license to practice law. He says he means only to uphold the law.
“If the people of Nevada don’t like it, they should have their elected officials in Carson City change the law,” he says.
In any event, he says, his experience has been that modern, educated women don’t want the privileges offered to them in “ladies night” promotions because it only perpetuates the old stereotype that they cannot do for themselves.
“In a day and age where women are fighting to receive equal pay to men,” says Phillips, “shouldn’t they also pay the same as men?”
The complaint against the LVAC filed by Phillips is still pending silently with the NERC. In the case that it makes its way to Nevada’s high courts, it just might force all Nevadans to take notice.
Joshua Longobardy is a Weekly staff writer.