These men's rights activists are using a 1950s law to shut down women in tech

Alyssa Bereznak
National Correspondent, Technology
(Yahoo News/Corbis)

Stephanie Burns came up with the idea for Chic CEO, a free online platform for female entrepreneurs, in 2008, when she was getting her MBA. Many of her friends had lost jobs in the recession and were asking her for tips on how to start their own businesses. After hosting about 15 friends at her San Diego home to exchange advice, Burns realized there was a market for offering entrepreneurial guidance to women. A year later, she launched her company.

Up until 2014, the focus of her work involved providing practical business advice to women in the form of free, easy-to-follow online materials. Every so often, Burns also organized networking events for women at which attendees could sip cocktails and chat about work. It was to one of these gatherings, held at an Italian restaurant last April in downtown San Diego, that two men showed up.

Rava has been involved in lawsuits against MLB teams for handing out free goodies such as hats and tote bags only to women on Mother’s Day.

What happened next would be the fuel for lawsuits against her, her company, the company that her business partner’s husband owned and the restaurant. It would ultimately lead to the demise of Burns’ company, and still threatens to derail the women-in-tech events that have begun popping up in Silicon Valley.

Two men named Allan Candelore and Rich Allison, who had each prepaid a $20 registration fee on the Chic CEO website, tried to enter the restaurant. According to a legal complaint that they later filed with National Coalition for Men president Harry Crouch, Burns turned them away at the door, saying the event “was only open to women.” They took a photo, left the premises, then promptly initiated legal action, turning to a 1959 California law originally written to prevent discrimination against minorities and women.

Burns first learned about the suit against Chic CEO as she was taping a webcast episode with a male friend called “Why Men Are So Important to Female Entrepreneurship.” She glanced at her phone and saw a text from her colleague’s husband, who had just been served legal papers because his company promoted a mixer she’d hosted. Burns was devastated.

“That was the most ironic moment of my life,” she told Yahoo News. “I was just explaining how it’s important that men are on our side.”

Burns had even consulted with a lawyer before holding the event and was assured that everything was above board. Her company had male clients, subscribers, mentors and advisory board members.

“I was completely confused,” she said. “Chic CEO does not discriminate against men.”

Business as usual

For Alfred G. Rava, however, this scenario was very familiar. The lawyer representing Allison, Candelore and Crouch has built a career around gender-discrimination lawsuits, filing approximately 150 complaints against California businesses over the past 15 years, according to CNN Money. Rava runs his own law firm in San Diego, and, as the secretary for the National Coalition for Men, he offers free consultation for NCFM members who feel they’ve experienced public discrimination because of their gender.

Crouch — who has said that if Ray Rice’s fiancée "hadn’t aggravated him, she wouldn’t have been hit" — recently described Rava as a “friend,” a “true civil rights advocate” and a “hero” who is “largely responsible for stopping discrimination against men in the strange state of California at great risk to his safety, health, and profession," in a blog post on the NCFM website. (Yahoo News attempted to reach Crouch several times, but he did not respond.) On three occasions, Rava has been involved in lawsuits against professional baseball teams for handing out free goods such as hats and tote bags only to women on Mother’s Day or similar women-focused events.

Though Rava's legal campaigns are not directly sponsored by the NCFM, his efforts are just one part of the men’s rights movement that exists in the United States and across the globe. A variety of groups — including A Voice for Men, the National Center for Men, the Men’s Rights Association and the ManKind Initiative — first began popping up in the 1970s as a rebuke to feminism. In the age of the Internet, their activism exists both in the online network known as the “manosphere” and at yearly meetings like the International Conference on Men’s Issues.

As a lawyer who specializes in targeting businesses’ sex-based promotions, Rava’s go-to legal tool is the Unruh Civil Rights Act. The 56-year-old state law ensures that all Californians are “free and equal, and no matter what their sex, race, color, religion, ancestry, national origin, disability, medical condition, genetic information, marital status, or sexual orientation are entitled to the full and equal accommodations, advantages, facilities, privileges, or services in all business establishments of every kind whatsoever.” Named after Jesse M. Unruh, a popular California Democrat, the act was intended to broaden protections for minorities. In the past, it has been used successfully to argue for a gay individual’s right to be part of the Boy Scouts and for women to take part in a Santa Cruz-based boys’ club.

“You have people that are kind of professional
plaintiffs who sue people for a living, and go looking for lawsuits.”
— George Stephan, defense attorney

The Unruh-related legal activities of Rava, Crouch, NCFM and its members are often closely tied together. Crouch sometimes writes amici curiae briefs as president of an organization for cases relating to the law, and has been a plaintiff in several Unruh Act cases, some of which have been represented by Rava. NCFM has filed lawsuits under the Unruh Act, though not under Crouch’s leadership. Rava has also been a plaintiff in several discrimination lawsuits, including a case against a string of downtown San Diego clubs for “ladies night” discounts, for which Rava and another plaintiff, Steven Surrey, settled for $125,000, and a Club Med “Ladies Fly Free” travel promotion, for which the settlement cost a total of $400,000 in attorney and court fees for the company. Candelore — who has been a member of NCFM for four years — has been the plaintiff in 10 civil cases since 2011, not including his case against Chic CEO. In nine of those 10 cases, he was represented by Rava. In eight of those, Crouch joined him as a plaintiff. In seven of those cases, Allison was a plaintiff. In sum, these men are often discriminated against together.

I have been a plaintiff in a number of discrimination lawsuits because I have been discriminated against a number of times,” Candelore told Yahoo News in an email. “I am hoping for a day when everyone will be treated equally, discrimination will end, and I don’t have to file another discrimination lawsuit.”

Rava made his mark on the law in 2007, when he argued the landmark California Supreme Court case Angelucci v. Century Supper Club. The decision revolved around the complaint of four men who said they were charged higher admission prices than women in a Los Angeles nightclub, and determined that patrons didn’t have to first confront a business that discriminated against them or assert their right to equal treatment in order to have legal standing under the Unruh Act.

The decision broadened protections for underrepresented communities that are often discriminated against in business interactions. Rava’s cases have mostly been centered on situations where women are favored over men, whether on a business’s promotional materials, in its facilities or through its staff’s interactions with customers. Rava told Yahoo News that he doesn’t see the value in women-focused events, even if they have no discriminatory intent. He calls the desire to hold them “strange and sad.”

(Rava refused to speak to me on the phone because he said he was concerned Yahoo News would misquote him. He also later emailed me to say: “I hope you print all sides to your story, because I am sure you would not want someone to publish a story about you on the Internet labeling you a ‘predator,’ a ‘gigantic bitch,’ an ‘elitist,’ a ‘soulless harpie,’ a ‘narcissist,’ and a ‘dumb woman,’ without that story presenting facts or opinions to the contrary.”)

According to George Stephan, a Los Angeles-based lawyer who specializes in discrimination law and has faced off against Rava in past cases, many lawsuits under the Unruh Act are used to attack the same people the law was created to protect.

“Sadly, most of the cases are abusing the law,” Stephan told Yahoo News. “You have people that are kind of professional plaintiffs who sue people for a living, and go looking for lawsuits. That’s given the law a bad name.”

Rava denies this characterization of his work, and says people who disagree with his legal methods are “old-fashioned sexists” who “probably still think that a young woman's best chance for a worthy life is to catch a good man by acing her home economics class and by knowing how to make a tasty bowl of queso from Velveeta.” He has also used this phrasing in several legal complaints.

The cost of fighting back

Two years ago, Donna Hoffman found herself the target of men’s rights advocates. Her small Virginia-based business taught women sports skills and provided professional networking opportunities around the country. At one such event at a San Diego golf course, several men showed up, asked to participate in the networking activity and — because of reasons disputed in the case — were turned away. Less than two weeks later, Hoffman was served papers alleging that someone associated with the event rejected the plaintiffs — Rich Allison, Harry Crouch, Allen Candelore and Jeffery Perewin — because they were men.

As in Burns’ case, Hoffman received no warning that she had offended or personally injured the plaintiffs, just a costly lawsuit that threatened to cripple her small business. And in what appears to be a pattern, Rava’s scope was not limited to Hoffman and her business. Roxanne Pepe, a friend who attended Hoffman’s events in the past but was not present for the San Diego gathering, received a call she describes as “threatening” from Rava at her home, asking her to give a deposition for the case. If she refused, she recalls, he said he would take legal action. Pepe told Yahoo News that she replied by saying, “I have no idea who you are, what you’re doing and what you’re after.” She was later served with a subpoena at her home on the morning of Super Bowl Sunday.

Rava disputes Pepe's version of events and says that because Pepe never called him back, “she left me with no choice but to have a process server serve her with this subpoena.”

Though Hoffman still feels there was nothing fundamentally wrong with the San Diego event, she eventually settled the case to avoid exorbitant legal fees.

“My overall impression of this group is that their purpose is to track and bait and relentlessly ask to be invited until they get a ‘no,’ so they can bring a suit,” Hoffman told Yahoo News. “They’re not interested in actually reaping the benefits of the events they’re trying to get into.”

The debilitating cost of a lawsuit brought under the Unruh Act is one of the main reasons Rava’s campaign can be so threatening to small business owners like Hoffman and Burns. Currently the law has something called a one-way attorney’s fee clause, which means that if a plaintiff sues someone and wins, the defendant is required to pay the attorneys’ fees on top of damages. But a plaintiff who sues and loses is not required to cover the defendant’s attorney fees. Stephan says this encourages frivolous lawsuits, and often forces defendants to settle as a way of avoiding expensive lawyers’ fees, even if a defendant was confident about winning.

“It’s one-sided,” he says. “It’s like heads I win, tails you lose.”

Under the statute, the minimum amount a defendant must pay in damages is $4,000 per plaintiff. Because of this, small businesses that must also cover attorneys’ fees sometimes opt to settle for around $8,000 to $10,000, according to one lawyer who wished to remain anonymous to avoid legal action. Depending on the number of plaintiffs, the cost of a settlement is enough to ruin many independently run companies.

Stephan says there is room for California legislators to clarify the text of the law and specify that it should not limit harmless, reasonable conduct like women-in-tech networking events.

“They passed the law and they can add to the law,” he says. “They could fix this.”

Burns speaking at a Chic CEO event. (Courtesy of Stephanie Burns)

 

A petition for change

Rava and his associates show no sign of abandoning their efforts. This spring, Crouch sent a letter to Geek Girl, a group that holds conferences to provide technology training for women. He warned the company that its upcoming conference in San Diego could potentially violate several anti discrimination statutes in California, and named the Unruh Act.  

Letters like these worry Renata Akhunova, a venture capitalist who has seen the industry’s gender gap up close and understands the value of having female-centric events.

“There are so few of us in entrepreneurship and tech,” she told Yahoo News. “It’s not fair to say it’s discrimination if we’re working to help a group that’s underrepresented,
underestimated, and underappreciated.”

“It’s not fair to say it’s discrimination if we’re working to help a group that’s underrepresented,
underestimated, and underappreciated.”
— Renata Akhunova, Women.VC

Akhunova is part of Women VC, a nonprofit that supports promising female professionals. After learning about Burns’ case, the group launched a petition calling for a solution to stop women-focused businesses from being unfairly attacked under the law. Akhunova is working with lawyers to draft legally acceptable language for independent businesses to use on invitations and websites, as a way to avoid similar lawsuits. Women VC has also contacted California’s attorney general about modifying the Unruh Act itself and hopes to at least discourage NCFM affiliates from filing lawsuits in the process.

“They are scared — that is a good thing,” she said, referring to the media attention the group's petition has drawn. “So maybe they will become less active.”

In a recent post to the NCFM website, Crouch described the online petition as “another irrational, emotion-driven, divide-and-conquer giant step backwards.”

One thing that’s sure: This particular legal tactic from the men’s rights movement can’t be expanded nationwide. Stephan says that few states make it as easy as California does to file discrimination suits for everyday interactions with businesses. Regardless, Akhunova says lawyers with Women VC are going over the language of other state discrimination laws, just in case.

As for Burns, she couldn’t afford to pay the excessive legal fees that would have been required to fight the lawsuit and chose to settle instead. Now 36, she recently took a job as the COO of a company that matches entrepreneurs to startups. She still gets upset when she thinks about what she had to leave behind.

“It was my life, it was what I wanted to do,” she says, holding back tears.

Rava, however, would like to remind Burns that the matter is not yet settled.

“Chic CEO never refunded my two clients the $20 they each prepaid Chic for a reservation for the event,” he says.

Correction: An earlier version of this story stated that Rava represented two lawsuits against MLB teams for handing out free hats, tote bags and mammograms only to women on Mother's Day. In fact, he was involved as either a plaintiff or an attorney on different occasions in three lawsuits of this nature which include a women's-only baseball program, and only contested the free hats and tote bags. Language has also been adjusted based on clarifications emailed by Rava.