California Appeals Court Holds Plaintiff Has Standing to Sue Hotel That Charged Fee for Service Dog

The California Court of Appeals for the Second District recently reversed the lower court’s holding that plaintiffs lacked standing to sue a hotel that refused to rent a room to a parapalegic unless she paid a fee for her service dog. The appeals court held that the lower court erroneously sustained the defendants’ demurrers, incorrectly finding that the plaintiffs lacked standing to sue.The lawsuit arose from an incident that occurred at a hotel owned and managed by defendants Bruce and Alfred Yasmeh, American Property Management, and INE Capital Holdings. Plaintiffs John Flowers and Seth and Kody Messmer filed suit in November 2013 after visiting the hotel. Flowers is a parapalegic and uses a service dog. Osborne is Flowers’ wife, and the Messmers are Flowers’ stepsons. The plaintiffs alleged that they were refused to rent a hotel room unless they paid a non-refundable cleaning fee for the service dog. Hotel management allegedly demanded them to pay an additional $220 for the cleaning fee. (The hotel room itself was only $80.) The plaintiffs left the hotel without paying the fee.

The plaintiffs sued the defendants in two lawsuits, one brought by Osborne and one brought by Flowers and the Messmers. In both actions, the plaintiffs alleged violations of the Unruh Civil Rights Act and intentional infliction of emotional distress.

The defendants argued that the plaintiffs’ pleadings could not establish standing, due to the “bright-line rule” articulated by the California Appeals Court for the Fourth District in a previous case. That case provided that under the Unruh Act, “a person must tender the purchase price for a business’s services or products in order to have standing to sue it for alleged discriminatory practices relating thereto.” Since the plaintiffs left the hotel without paying the fee, the defendants argued, they did not have standing to assert an Unruh Act cause of action. The trial court sustained the defendants’ demurrers without leave to amend.

The plaintiffs appealed from the judgments entered in their two separate cases. The appeals court consolidated the two lawsuits.

The appeals court held that the bright-line rule was not applicable to the facts of this case. Section 52, which provides remedies for violations of the Unruh Act, states that any person aggrieved by conduct that violates the Unruh Act may bring a civil action. When a disabled person such as Flowers alleges that a business required him to pay a fee relating to his disability before accessing the services offered, he has pleaded sufficient facts to establish that he is “aggrieved” pursuant to the Unruh Act, and he has therefore alleged sufficient facts to demonstrate standing to sue.

A plaintiff is not required, the appeals court explained, to pay a discriminatory expense to establish standing to file a lawsuit for discrimination. As long as the plaintiff alleges facts demonstrating that he has experienced a direct denial of rights as defined in the Unruh Act, that is sufficient. In addition, when a disabled person has standing to sue under section 52, any person “associated with” that individual has standing if the associated person has also directly experienced the discriminatory conduct. Thus, the plaintiffs had pleaded sufficient facts to establish standing, and the lower court improperly sustained the defendants’ demurrer.

For these reasons, the appeals court reversed and remanded for further proceedings.

The premises liability lawyers at the Neumann Law Group represent victims of accidents throughout the Los Angeles area. Call us at (213) 227-0001 for a free consultation.

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