In The News

 
Fairbanks Ranch Club Sued Over Men-Only Lounge

October 6, 2004

Club located on city-owned land

By Catherine Macrae Hockmuth

RANCHO SANTA FE – A member of Fairbanks Ranch Country Club in Rancho Santa Fe is suing the club for refusing to open a new lounge to tis female members and employees.

The “Gentlemen's Locker Room Lounge” was created as part of a $3 million renovation to the club in March. Despite the name, the room is not a locker room lounge for men to relax in “various stages of undress,” according to the lawsuit filed by member Maureen Pechacek-Howe, a certified public accountant and partner with Price Waterhouse Coopers.

The lawsuit claims the name is deliberately misleading because its main entrance is not through the men's locker room, but through the main clubhouse. The lounge is a self-contained room measuring more than 2,000 square feet. Services include a full bar and restaurant service by male employees only; two large, flat screened television; an outdoor patio with a view of the golf course; and tables and sofas. The room is connected to the men's locker area through two doors.

The lawsuit claims the situation has become a source of personal and professional embarrassment for Pechacek (pronounced Pa-Ha-Check)-Howe, who entertains male Fortune 100 clients at the club but cannot visit with them in the lounge.

Pechacek-Howe's attorney Dan Lawton said the case is a simple matter of gender discrimination against female members of the club and its female employees, who are barred from working in the lounge. Lawton said the club is violating the state Unruh Civil Rights act, which prohibits businesses of all kinds from discrimination based on sex, race, color, religion, ancestry, disability, national origin or sexual orientation.

He cite the California Supreme Court's 1995 decision in Mary Ann Warfield v. Peninsula Golf & Country Club in San Mateo, in which justices ruled that the private club is a business establishment under the law and subject to Unruh. The club excluded women from membership. Although the private social club derived its financial support primarily form membership dues, the court ruled that it is a business establishment because it slao conducted regular business transactions with nonmembers, including sales in the golf and tennis pro shops, and hosting regular wedding reception and sponsored events. Lawton said Fairbanks Ranch also gets income from nonmembers.

The club is located on land owned by the city of San Diego. The city leased the land in 1982 to Watts Industries, which assigned its rights and obligations under the agreement to the club in 1986. The lease, a copy of which was submitted to the court, includes clauses prohibiting discrimination and requiring the club to comply with the law and set a policy of affirmative action to improve employment opportunities of minorities and women.”

Lawton said the case is easily compared with ongoing litigation between the American Civil Liberties Union and the Boy scouts of America over a lease of city-owned parkland that has ensnared city officials and resulted in a $950,000 settlement with ACLU. Federal District Judge Napoleon Jones has twice ruled that city leases to the Boy Scouts violate the constitutional separation between church and state because the nonprofit organization does not allow gay members. The case is pending an appeal.

Lawton said the plaintiff in this case does not intend to hold the city accountable for the alleged discrimination; however, he has notified the City Attorney's office and all members of the City Council of the complaint. The city is not named in the lawsuit.

Lawton said the club could and should lose its lease if it does not end its discriminatory practice, which he said it would be easy enough for the club to do. The city attorney's office declined to comment on the lawsuit because it has not yet received a copy of the complaint.

“We really don't have any beef with the city,” Lawton said. “The city is not out there doing the discrimination.”

Lawton said Pechacek-Howe was reluctant to sue but did so after weeks of attempting to resolve the matter privately. Pechacek-Howe declined to be interviewed through her attorney. “Maureen loves the club, she loves being a member there,” Lawton said. “She doesn't want to see it hurt or harmed in any way. When you love something you want to make it better.”

The lawsuit also claims that the club's leadership ignored challenges to the renovation plan from several female and male members, including Pehacek-Howe and her husband Maynard Howe. Members had been invited to provide input during the renovation planning process. Lawton said at the time that questions about the lounge were refuted or answered with the statement that the plans were not finalized.

Fairbanks Ranch attorney John Shiner, a partner in the Los Angeles office of Morrison & Foerster, said the club is not subject to Unruh and, regardless, that the lounge policy is not discriminatory. The lounge is part of the men's locker room, he said, noting that the women's locker room has its own lounge area where female employees provide food and beverage service. There is also a mixed-company grill area open to male and female members.

Shiner declined to say whether the club gets any of its revenue from business transactions with nonmembers – as in the Warfield case. He said Fairbanks Ranch is a private club and does not meet the criteria for a business establishment set by Warfield. However, he declined to get into detailed analysis of the claim. Shiner said the club's lease with the city is not a factor “in the slightest.”

“The fact that one facility may be somewhat different from another facility does not equate to discrimination,” Shiner said.

Moreover, Shiner, who is also representing Bernardo Heights Country Club in a discrimination case involving a lesbian couple, said the renovation plans were vetted for member input in a democratic process.

“The fact that a process was involved doesn't make the result any less illegal,” Lawton countered. “What if the democratic process had resulted in (a decision that) ‘We're not going to allow Jews in there'?”

The lawsuit also claims unfair business practices and breach of contract. The case has been assigned to Superior Court Judge Patricia Cowett.

Catherine.hockmuth@sddt.com
Source Code: 20041005tbb

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