Dirty Dan's is known best for what its female dancers do not wear. But when the topless club's management tried to force a patron to strip off his motorcycle vest, it spawned an unusual legal battle that allowed the 4th District Court of Appeal to get something off its chest recently.
The saga began when Michael Renteria of Santee and a buddy got tired of being denied admission to Dirty Dan's and several other local topless establishments because of the insignias sewn onto their leather vests. The pair's fancy fabric patches are emblazoned with the name "Border Bandits" and denote membership in a motorcycle club.
Managers of the topless nightspots said they barred customers wearing the insignias, also referred to as "colors," because patrons thusly clad were more prone to misconduct. Renteria figured that amounted to discrimination, pure and simple. So he sued.
Initially, then-Superior Court Judge Patricia Benke denied Renteria's request for an injunction prohibiting the nightclubs from enforcing the anti-insignia policy.
But on Friday, the 4th District Court of Appeal reversed that 1986 judgment and ordered the nightspots to change their ways.
"Renteria was not excluded from bars for misconduct," the court said in a 15-page opinion written by retiring Justice Edward T. Butler. "The fact he is admitted to the bars when not wearing his 'colors,' denoting membership in a motorcycle club, belies any claim his exclusion is based on reasonable rules for 'deportment.' "
The exclusionary policies, the justices said, amount to "arbitrary discrimination" and rest "squarely on (Renteria's) exercise of free speech rights." The court concluded that the clubs' selective admission standard violates the Unruh Civil Rights Act, a state law barring businesses from excluding a class of individuals based on stereotypical assumptions about their conduct.
Thomas Homann, a San Diego attorney representing Renteria and fellow Border Bandit Clifford Dohrer, hailed the decision, which was certified for publication and consequently will set a legal precedent in California.
"If all we were talking about was a dress code, then I think this lawsuit would be trivial," Homann said Monday. "But these gentlemen are proud of their affiliation with a group that they consider not an outlaw gang but a social outlet. This ruling allows them to be who they are . . . I think it marks a healthy development in the law."
On a lighter note, Homann said he was surprised that the legal showdown ever materialized. "Imagine," he mused, "a topless bar imposing a dress code."
Renteria, a 35-year-old electrician who rides a red, 1985 Harley Davidson, said the victory was a heartening one for him and others who have been victims of discrimination based on their penchant for socializing through motorcycle clubs.
"We just want respect," said Renteria, a member of the Border Bandits for eight years. "We are intelligent people and know that if
we go in a place and start a fight, we won't be allowed back in. We don't go for that type of behavior. All we wanted was a place we can go and relax and be by ourselves."
Thomas Monson, an attorney for two of the five nightclubs targeted by the lawsuit, called the ruling "disappointing" and said he has not yet decided whether to appeal to the state Supreme Court.
Bowling Teams, Too?
"The clubs I represented had a policy that prohibited the wearing of any kind of insignias, whether they be for a motorcycle club or the military, and so it wasn't a random exclusion of one group," said Monson, who represented the In Spot East in La Mesa and Club Royale/Nite Life Inc. in San Diego. "If six members of a bowling team had come in with insignias on their jackets, we would have asked them to remove them, too."
Monson said the policy was designed to prevent "the competitive atmosphere you get in a club when there are all these rival groups" wearing similar attire.
The court, however, noted that the clubs failed in their testimony "to cite a single instance of confrontation between wearers of insignia denoting competitive clubs, violent or otherwise."
"Exclusion of Renteria cannot be excused or justified on the basis of a rational good-faith belief that persons wearing insignia denoting membership in motorcycle clubs may be 'troublemakers,' " Butler wrote. "The Unruh Act was specifically designed to prohibit exactly such stereotyping."
Besides the In Spot East and Club Royale, the lawsuit named the three San Diego branches of Dirty Dan's. Joshua Kaplan of Beverly Hills, the attorney representing owners of those Dirty Dan's clubs, did not return phone calls from The Times.
Under the Unruh Act, Renteria and Dohrer are entitled to damages from the clubs that enforced the discriminatory policies. The act provides for a minimum of $250 for each instance that admission was denied. The total award will be determined at a Superior Court hearing soon, Homann said.
Meanwhile, Renteria said he is holding off on a victory celebration until he is convinced that nightclubs will observe the 4th District's ruling. The veteran motorcycle enthusiast said he plans to wait "about a month" and then attempt to gain entrance to the topless establishments.
"We're not going to be vindictive and say, 'Ha, ha, we won,' " Renteria said. "But if they don't let us in, we'll just take them to court again."