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Non-Married Couples and State Law

Today, a significant percentage of suits involve legal actions addressing such issues as sexual harassment, gender discrimination, rights of participants with disabilities and cases such as this one involving sexual orientation.

In 1987, the year Birgit Koebke joined Bernardo Heights Country Club (BHCC), Calif., all members, their spouses and their children under the age of 22 were entitled to unlimited golf at no extra charge. In 1995, after a two-year relationship with a woman, Kendall French, Koebke asked that the BHCC designate French as her "significant other." The board rejected the request. In 1998, the two women registered with the state as domestic partners. They executed a Statement of Domestic Partnership stating that French was Koebke's primary life companion and spouse. The women petitioned the BHCC board again in 1998 and 2000, and their requests were denied each time. During this time, the board ignored its own policy and extended playing privileges to several non-married partners of heterosexual members. Koebke then sued the club, alleging sex, sexual orientation and marital-status discrimination in violation of the Unruh Civil Rights Act (Civil Code section 51). The club's motion for summary judgment was upheld in both the trial court and in the appellate court. In addressing the issue, the California Supreme Court sought to determine if the Unruh Act precludes BHCC from granting married couples benefits it denies to persons registered under the California Domestic Partner Rights and Responsibilities Act of 2003, and ultimately concluded that it does. The Court stated that "plaintiffs should be allowed to try to establish that, prior to 2005, BHCC's spousal benefit policy was discriminatorily applied in violation of the Unruh Act," reversed the summary judgment of the lower courts, and remanded the case to trial (Koebke v. Bernardo Heights Country Club, 2005 Cal. LEXIS 8359).

Applying the Unruh Act

A few years ago, the great majority of cases involving fitness centers were from injuries where the plaintiff alleged negligence on the part of the facility or one of its employees. Slips and falls in the shower, injuries during cardio workouts, faulty exercise equipment and failure to properly respond to injuries were typical of the cases. Today, however, a significant percentage of suits involve legal actions addressing such issues as sexual harassment, gender discrimination, rights of participants with disabilities and cases such as this one involving sexual orientation. Facility owners and managers need to apply and enforce all fitness center policies in a manner that protects individual rights, liberty and equality. The Unruh Act states, in part, that all persons "are free and equal, and, no matter what their sex, race, color, religion, ancestry, national origin, disability or medical condition, are entitled to the full and equal accommodations, advantages, facilities, privileges or services in all business establishments of every kind whatsoever." Through subsequent case rulings, the California Supreme Court has broadened the scope of the act to include categories other than those named in the act (e.g., sexual orientation). Although the Koebke case addresses only one aspect of the Unruh Act, it has serious implications for fitness centers throughout California. Additionally, owners and managers in other states are put on notice, since many states have passed legislation aimed at protecting the rights of minority groups, including those of gay couples in domestic partnership situations.

Risk management guidelines

Four important guidelines are clearly illustrated in this case:
  1. Risk management should not be restricted to concerns regarding injuries and negligence.
  2. The Unruh Civil Rights Statute and the California Domestic Partner Rights and Responsibilities Act of 2003 are state laws and apply only in California. However, your state may have a statute that has the same effect. Have your attorney examine your fitness center's policies to determine if any could be in violation of state or federal laws.
  3. Enforce your membership policy (or any other policy) equally with all clients. One factor that hurt BHCC was that it did not enforce the policy the same way with homosexuals as with heterosexuals.
  4. In a changing society, good risk management might dictate a proactive approach to the accommodation of important membership demographics.

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