A Fight for Men’s Rights, in California Courts
Rich Allison is a former Marine Corps captain who was never in combat. Now he is on the front lines of the culture wars.
Mr. Allison, 47, is a key player in a movement of men’s rights activists challenging female-focused businesses, marketing strategies, educational programs and civic projects that have surged since the election of President Trump in November 2016 and the #MeToo movement.
He has been a plaintiff in 13 lawsuits, most of which cite discrimination against men in violation of California’s Unruh Civil Rights Act, named for the politician Jesse Unruh, known as “Big Daddy.” It outlaws discrimination against all people by any type of business establishment in the state, regardless of a person’s sex, race and other characteristics. Mr. Allison and his cohort would like to remind everyone that Unruh’s broad promise of “full and equal accommodations, advantages, facilities, privileges or services” extends to men.
“I believe in social justice and fairness,” Mr. Allison said.
Since September 2017, he has filed three suits, including one last month against Financial Services Information Sharing and Analysis Center, a nonprofit that helps the financial services industry with physical security and cybersecurity. In 2016, the organization started a “Diversity Scholarship” that awards female recipients $5,000 apiece, along with covering the costs of attending an industry conference.
“Cybersecurity is made up of well over 90 percent men and the idea is that diversity of thought, including from gender, will really improve our cybersecurity as a nation,” said Bill Nelson, the organization’s president and C.E.O. “We saw this lawsuit and felt like, ‘No good deed should go unpunished.’”
The use of Unruh by men’s rights activists reflects “a gross misunderstanding of the nature of our sexist society and of what is specifically going on in the state of California,” said Larry Organ, the lead lawyer at the California Civil Rights Law Group, whose headquarters are in Oakland, Calif.
Yet it is also revealing potential legal holes in certain current feminist strategy.
A sign at the National Coalition for Men in San Diego. Credit John Francis Peters for The New York Times
Meet the Plaintiffs
On a sunny Thursday in June, Mr. Allison walked slowly down the stairs of a strip mall commercial center in downtown San Diego to talk about his efforts.
Shy-seeming, he declined to have his photograph taken. “Just trying to keep a relaxed state,” he said, as he sat down in the national headquarters of the National Coalition for Men, which is decorated with posters (“Combat Deaths 99.9% Male,”), stacks of books (“Hotsy Totsy FemiNazi” and “Abused Men: The Hidden Side of Domestic Violence”), buttons (“Prosecute false accusers!” “California is Sexist & Hateful Against Men”) and bumper stickers (“Don’t be THAT girl: Embarrassed about a hookup? Angry at a boyfriend? Willing to destroy a life?”).
Mr. Allison was sitting with Allan Candelore, 34, another N.C.F.M. member and frequent plaintiff, and Harry Crouch, 68, the coalition’s president.
Mr. Crouch, who grew up in Anchorage, said he began working in men’s rights after a relationship with an abusive woman led him to seek state funding for a program for abused men. He was told men don’t qualify for such grants, he said.
After moving to Southern California, Mr. Crouch met Philip W. Cook, the author of “Abused Men,” who told him about N.C.F.M., which emerged from men’s rights groups that formed in the late 1970s and early 1980s, in the wake of feminism’s second wave. Mr. Crouch attended a meeting in Los Angeles and joined.
He started a paternity-testing business in San Diego, but it didn’t take off. He then opened a space called the California Men’s Center, which he hoped would become a shelter for men. When he learned that the coalition’s president was seeking a successor, Mr. Crouch raised his hand and turned the California Men’s Center into N.C.F.M.’s headquarters.
From there he oversees its website, which lists 29 chapters in cities around America and in Israel, Canada and Kenya, and its social-media feeds. N.C.F.M. is a registered 501(c)(3) with assets of $115,182, according to GuideStar.
Swag includes bracelets that say, “Save the Males.”
Mr. Allison, a divorced father of three, was drawn to the movement after observing that popular culture can diminish the importance of men in families and society. He found a T-Mobile ad that ran during Super Bowl XLIX in 2015 particularly galling. In it, the comedian Sarah Silverman hands a couple their newborn baby and says, “Sorry, it’s a boy.”
“If you took the flip side and said, ‘Sorry, it’s a girl,’” Mr. Candelore said, “we’d be up in arms.”
Mr. Candelore works for his father’s law firm, Men’s Legal Center, in the same building as the N.C.F.M. office. It largely represents men in divorce, custody and paternity cases. (The firm has female clients as well, Mr. Candelore said, including paternal grandmothers fighting for visitation rights.)
He is also an active plaintiff, who won a ruling in a case against Tinder for age discrimination and is pursuing another case against Facebook for its ethnically selective advertising practices, even after the company suspended them. In a statement, Tinder said it intends to fight on; Facebook did not comment.
A fellow plaintiff on the Facebook matter, Bert Riddick, 59, came to the men’s rights movement after being involved in a paternity fraud case. For years, Mr. Riddick’s paycheck was docked $800 a month for child support, though DNA tests revealed the child was not his. He successfully arguedto have $168,000 in additional child support debt erased but was not able to recover the money he had paid.
Mr. Allison is the graduate of a boys’ prep school in Connecticut who attended the University of Southern California and has worked in information technology. He traces his interest in discrimination cases to his military service, during which he was stationed with his family in Japan.
“I just think I was a little bit more sensitive when I was back here toward fairness,” Mr. Allison said. “You see who’s putting the load on things, who’s contributing back to society.”
Getting involved in the N.C.F.M. and filing Unruh cases have helped him channel difficult emotions into positive action, he said.
“It gave a purpose to some of the things that I was feeling instead of basically complaining and it doesn’t go anywhere. At least you can focus on things instead of internalizing it,” Mr. Allison said. “I think as men we have a tendency to internalize a lot of things and it puts some people over the edge, where they may do something to harm themselves and harm others.”
Testing the ‘Man Tax’
The coalition members have become known around town as men who want to know when a bar or club is offering a discount on admissions or drinks only to women.
“I get feedback from people saying, ‘Hey, look, someone’s having this event,’” Mr. Allison said. “Or I get something from a promoter, telling me, ‘Hey, they’re trying to do this’ or ‘This business is doing this thing, we’re being honest and then these other guys are being underhanded by letting women in free to a place.’”
Then Mr. Allison and his associates will go “test out” the place, meaning they will go to an establishment or event and seek the special access or price being offered to women, sometimes with a cover story.
After being turned away or charged more, the plaintiffs work with a lawyer and decide whether to sue. “I have never filed a case that has been frivolous or anything like that,” Mr. Allison said.
He did not want to discuss the specifics of any actions, but here is a sampling:
*In 2010, Mr. Allison was a plaintiff on a class action civil-rights suit filed against the heavy metal band Five Finger Death Punch, House of Blues and Live Nation after he, Mr. Crouch, Mr. Candelore and Jackie Durazo, who was then an in-law of Mr. Candelore’s, went to the band’s “Chicks for Free” concert and the men were charged $27 for admission but Ms. Durazo was not. “They ambulance chase these events and make a little money for themselves,” said Allen Kovac, now the manager of the band. “This sort of thing is a stain on laws that are meant to level the playing field.”
*In 2013 Mr. Allison, along with Mr. Crouch, Mr. Candelore and another plaintiff named Jeff Perwein, sued Maderas Country Club, in Poway, Calif., as well as a company called Women on Course, for hosting a recurring networking event for women called Clinic & Cocktail.
*A few months later, the same group and Carolyn Bell, the N.C.F.M. membership coordinator, sued El Mundo Del Tango, a restaurant and bar in San Diego, after the men were required to pay a cover charge. Ms. Bell was not.
All of these cases were settled, and the defendants wouldn’t comment.
In a more recent case, Mr. Allison sued Poway Weapons & Gear, Inc. for providing, once a month, free use of its shooting range to female patrons, as well as a lounge and raffle.
“I emphatically deny the allegations, and it will be easily proven in court,” said John Phillips, the owner of Poway. “We have pictures of men in the so-called women’s lounges, and we actually have had complaints from women that men were winning too many of the raffles.”
Mr. Allison, Mr. Candelore and Mr. Crouch all say that their court actions benefit women’s rights because special-drink offers and differences in cover charges, in particular, are often intended to draw female customers as a bait for men.
“If you’re giving preferential treatment to women, you’re discriminating against them as well,” Mr. Crouch said. “That’s funny, but you are. You’re exploiting them.”
When Mr. Allison, Mr. Crouch or other would-be plaintiffs go to establishments to test them, they on occasion have brought Ms. Bell, 51, because they need a woman, she said, to prove different treatment.
She had tested establishments five or six times before she made the case to the men that she should be included as a plaintiff so she could share in the financial rewards.
Ms. Bell said she received about $1,500 from the El Mundo Del Tango suit. “I didn’t get equal pay,” she said. “I kept joking that I should sue them.”
A Defendant Speaks
Last September, Mr. Allison sued Ladies Get Paid, a career-development company for women, after he was turned away from one of its gatherings at a bar in San Diego. (Mr. Allison also sued the bar and bar’s owner.)
Founded in 2016 by Claire Wasserman, a former marketing director, Ladies Get Paid was intended as a “safe zone,” she said, where women could speak openly about money and issues contributing to pay disparities and “uncomfortable gender dynamics at work.” Events of different sizes have cost from $15 to $60 and have featured professional coaches and other speakers.
A second suit against Ladies Get Paid was also filed, on behalf of a man named George St. George, who, the complaint said, was turned away from an event in Los Angeles.
Ms. Wasserman was stunned to find herself on the wrong side of discrimination suits. “At first I felt really guilty and just thought, ‘How could I have been so stupid for starting something that keeps some people out?’”
“Then I got over my guilt,” she said. “Then I got mad.”
California law provides that if the court finds there has been a civil-rights violation, the defendant is subject to a fine and must pay the prevailing plaintiff’s legal fees and costs. Ms. Wasserman’s company is new and self-funded; she took her lawyer’s advice, which was to settle the cases. She has changed her company’s policy, and it now welcomes men at events.
“We don’t have the money to fight it,” Ms. Wasserman said. “These guys are winning. We are rolling over and funding them.”
Behind almost all of this litigation is a lawyer named Alfred G. Rava, 62. Formerly a secretary of N.C.F.M., he has filed some 300 Unruh cases. For the last three years, he has filed at a rate of about one per month.
Citing a disability, he declined to meet in person for an interview, or to speak on the phone, but was a willing email correspondent.
Mr. Rava wrote that his desire to hold companies accountable for differential treatment came from growing up in the anthracite fields of northeastern Pennsylvania, where he saw “how the wealthy mine owners mistreated the poor Polish, Italian and Irish immigrant coal miners, such as my grandfathers, uncles and father.”
He said that his work has benefited women as well as men. He pointed to a class-action settlement of $370,000 after a drinks-special lawsuit Mr. Rava filed against the parent company of Tony Roma’s, with Mr. Riddick as the plaintiff.
Mr. Rava also noted that he served as consultant to the lawyer representing a woman who in 2009 filed a suit against MasterCuts, a chain of hair salons, for offering coupon discounts only to men.
Mr. Rava graduated from Penn State with a degree in environmental science and helped design wastewater treatment equipment and other environmental products in Houston. He sued two former employers for nonpayment of commissions and won a jury verdict against an insurance company after it denied a $6,500 claim on a damaged car.
Motivated, he said, to “help other people who got screwed,” he enrolled at California Western School of Law, in San Diego.
In 2002 he went to a bar in San Diego’s Gaslamp Quarter and was charged a $10 admission fee that women didn’t have to pay. “I asked the bouncer if I could get in for free, and he told me he would do so if I went home and put on a skirt and some lipstick,” Mr. Rava wrote.
Instead, “I did some research on the internet and discovered that ladies’ night and charging men more than women for cover charges or for drinks constituted sex discrimination under California law, specifically the Unruh Civil Rights Act.” He sued the bar and won.
In 2009, the Oakland Athletics baseball team and Macy’s agreed to a reported $500,000 settlement for a Rava suit of gender discrimination after a 2004 Mother’s Day weekend promotion: The team had given free hats to the first 7,500 women who showed up for a game.
Not all of the businesses Mr. Rava sues concede. In 2011, a client took on the Trump National Golf Club in Rancho Palos Verdes, Calif., claiming that it discriminated against men by offering female golfers a 25 percent discount and partial donation of their greens fees to research during Breast Cancer Awareness Month.
A judge agreed with Trump Organization lawyers that the case Mr. Rava filed should be dismissed, a decision an appellate court upheld.
In the last year or so, nearly all of Mr. Rava’s Unruh discrimination complaints — a December 2017 suit against the Pendry Hotel in San Diego, among other defendants; a June 6 filing against a strip club that hosted a “Lesbian Night” — have begun with a quote from “Animal Farm” by George Orwell: “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.”
‘Just One of the Girls’
Mr. Rava has a new client: Lawrence Pollister, known as Abe, a self-described “liberal, pro-gender equality feminist.”
In May, Mr. Rava filed a class action Unruh lawsuit on behalf of Mr. Pollister, 29, after a November 2017 comedy show for a female-only audience performed by Iliza Shlesinger at a theater in Los Angeles. Ms. Shlesinger; a production company and its owner; and United Talent Agency, which booked the gig, are cited as defendants.
Mr. Pollister said in an email interview that he bought tickets to Ms. Shlesinger’s “No Boys Allowed” performance after having seen her do stand-up a few weeks earlier. He assumed “No Boys Allowed” was the name of her show, like Beyoncé’s “Formation.”
But when he and a female friend showed up at the club and went to the will-call booth to retrieve their tickets, Mr. Pollister was denied entry by a club employee, he said, because he is a man.
“Oh no, honey, I’m just one of the girls! I’m gay,” he told her.
The employee told him, he said, that Ms. Shlesinger explicitly wasn’t allowing men into the show.
Mr. Pollister, who moved to California from New Mexico to escape what he called “an oppressive Republican rural community who ostracized and tortured me for being an effeminate gay man,” was humiliated and upset to be excluded, he said.
He said he sought an apology through Ms. Shlesinger’s representatives, but did not receive one and began to do research about discrimination law.
Then he read that a suit had already been filed, by Mr. Rava on behalf of Mr. St. George, the plaintiff on one of the Ladies Get Paid suits. Mr. Pollister contacted the lawyer, who dismissed Mr. St. George’s suit and then refiled it as a class action with Mr. Pollister’s name atop the complaint.
“What Iliza did that night was an attack on gender equality,” said Mr. Pollister, who in a subsequent email alluded to the recent Supreme Court ruling in favor of Masterpiece Cakeshop, which had refused to create a cake for a gay wedding.
“My motivations are purely political. I don’t want someone to say, ‘I won’t bake a cake for you because you’re gay,’” Mr. Pollister wrote. “How is that different from saying, ‘I won’t let you in this theater because you’re a man?’”
He also invoked one of #MeToo’s most cherished phrases.
“A marginalized group of people doesn’t need to exclude others to create a ‘safe space.’” Mr. Pollister wrote. “Doing so actually does exactly the opposite, and gives power to your oppressors.”