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Getting Bent Over Gender

A San Diego attorney has filed suits targeting ballpark promotions aimed at specific groups. Some say he's misusing a state civil rights act.

May 16, 2006|Greg Johnson and Dave McKibben | Times Staff Writers

Is Alfred Rava the Grinch who would steal Mother's Day?

Even as major league baseball players hefted pink bats during games Sunday to draw attention to breast cancer research, the San Diego-based attorney was trying to stop teams from using tote bags and other inexpensive swag to persuade mothers to spend part of their day at the ballpark.

The civil lawsuits Rava has filed against the Angels, San Diego Padres and Oakland Athletics are among more than 40 legal actions he has brought under California's Unruh Civil Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination based on sex, race, color, religion, ancestry, national origin, disability, medical conditions, marital status and sexual orientation.

In the past, Rava has targeted bars that dangled cheap drinks and cut-rate admission on "ladies nights." He also has sued nonprofit cultural organizations in San Diego that offered discounted tickets to certain demographic groups.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday May 19, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 2 inches; 77 words Type of Material: Correction
Baseball promotions: An article in Tuesday's Sports section about the legality of some promotions sponsored by professional baseball teams incorrectly stated that Alfred Rava sued the nonprofit City Ballet of San Diego. The attorney sued Spreckels Theater and Theatrical Enterprises Inc., which own the venue where the ballet performs. The article also said that Rava reached an out-of-court settlement in a discrimination lawsuit involving several San Diego-area bar owners. The settlement was reached during the court proceeding.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday June 03, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 36 words Type of Material: Correction
Baseball promotions: A May 16 article in the Sports section incorrectly stated that attorney Alfred Rava received $125,000 from a settlement to a legal action. The settlement was awarded, but not entirely paid, to several plaintiffs.

Rava said he first considered suing a baseball team after being denied a "reversible bucket hat" at an A's game on Mother's Day in 2004. "I was shocked that a seemingly sophisticated business in the 21st century would treat customers differently based on their sex," Rava said.

Some attorneys believe that Rava is misusing the Unruh Act by filing nuisance lawsuits and then seeking financial settlements out of court.

Rava insists that isn't the case -- though he acknowledges that the Mother's Day promotions he is contesting in California probably would be legal in states that lack Unruh-type protections.

Though spokesmen for the three franchises and Major League Baseball declined to comment on specifics of the lawsuits, Rava clearly has the league's attention.

After being hit last week with Rava's lawsuit challenging the legality of their 2005 Mother's Day promotion, the Angels agreed to make totes available Sunday to the first 25,000 adult fans, regardless of their gender or whether they had children.

Similarly, after being sued last week for a 2004 Mother's Day promotion, the A's agreed to let men attend a "Baseball 101" program that previously had been marketed exclusively to women.

And the Padres no longer market a women-only baseball clinic after settling a suit filed by Rava last year, said Jeff Overton, the club's executive vice president of business operations.

The Dodgers continue to offer gender-specific promotions, such as a June 18 "Father's Day Catch" on the field and a July 29 Smashbox Cosmetics giveaway, but have not been sued by Rava -- perhaps because team officials say moms won't be kept off the field and men can, if they wish, try to snare some lipstick.

Word of the MLB lawsuits -- which sparked intense discussion on sports talk radio -- didn't surprise some who previously had been sued by Rava.

Orange County bar owner Carl Leslie's first thought after hearing of the Angels lawsuit was, "Could this be the same guy who came after me?" Leslie settled a 2004 lawsuit brought by Rava over a "ladies night" promotion at his bar rather than wage an expensive court battle.

Rava has reached several out-of-court settlements, including a 2003 agreement in which seven San Diego bar owners paid him $125,000. He's also lost some court cases.

Evelyn F. Heidelburg, an attorney who successfully defended San Diego's City Ballet organization against a 2005 lawsuit filed by Rava, suggested that the attorney seems to be carving out "a little niche" in the legal world.

Rava had sued the nonprofit group for offering cheap tickets designed to attract young families that generally don't attend ballet performances.

"In my view, he's abusing the Unruh Act," Heidelburg said. "I was glad to be able to stop him down here."

In interviews and e-mails, Rava referred to the big league giveaways as "sex discrimination on steroids" and compared them to "having an Easter Day promotion and giving chocolate Easter bunnies to everybody except Jews, Hindus, Buddhists and Muslims."

The Unruh Act offers consumers protection against arbitrary or intentional discrimination, said USC law professor David B. Cruz. The act prohibits businesses from linking their pricing to a customer's race, sex or marital status. For example, the California Supreme Court upheld a ruling that found a car wash operator guilty of discrimination for offering women cheaper rates than men could get.

The act doesn't specifically address giveaways, Cruz said, so a court eventually would have to determine whether a gender-specific offer of a tote bag or a hat represents an illegal business practice.

The court also would have to determine if male fans who didn't get a hat or tote qualified for damages -- a not insignificant matter given Rava's claim that the baseball teams and their corporate sponsors should be on the hook for tens of millions in damages.

Lawsuits that seek to limit how companies promote themselves are of significant interest to the $400-billion promotions industry.

"If your object as a company is to increase your market share in a particular [demographic] segment, you're going to do things that are relevant to that particular market," said Claire Rosenzweig, president of the New York-based Promotion Marketing Assn.

"And platforms like sports teams are great ones because the consumers are already in the park. You're reaching them through something they really enjoy."

Given that the Angels, A's and Padres seem to be opening their promotions to all fans, hasn't Rava gotten what he and his clients wanted?

"We got one good result [in that] they stopped doing it," Rava said. "But that doesn't address the other remedy. We want the statuary damages for discriminating based on sex."

Oddly enough, the Angels' planned tote bag distribution on Sunday failed to materialize because the bags that were being shipped from an overseas manufacturer didn't arrive in time. Moms, dads and others who wanted a tote instead got vouchers that can be redeemed at a later date.

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