Good Beer Hunting

Eagle Rock’s Hard Place — California Brewery Looks to Bounce Back Following Men’s Rights Legal Action

Women's Beer Forum_4.jpg

With legal fees covered thanks to a crowdsourced fundraising effort, a trio of Los Angeles brewery owners are now turning their attention toward impacting California law in order to stop men’s rights activists from suing small businesses across the state under claims of discrimination toward males.

Welcome to craft beer in 2018.

The confluence of these plotlines flowed toward each other over the past year, just recently culminating in a GoFundMe campaign for Eagle Rock Brewery that raised almost $16,200 in its first week. Co-founders Jeremy Raub and Ting Su (husband and wife) and Steven Raub (father) turned to the platform to assist with a legal dispute waged by Steve Frye, a Laguna Woods, California resident and supporter of the National Coalition for Men, an organization “committed to ending harmful discrimination and stereotypes against boys, men, their families and the women who love them.”

In November 2017, Frye waged a complaint with the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing against Eagle Rock for its Women’s Beer Forum, a monthly event that has taken place since 2011. At the program, the business hosts customers of all gender identities for an educational tasting and discussion around beer, but it was created as a way to raise the profile of and excitement around craft beer for women. According to Su, her brewery was positioned to deal with a lawsuit or settle out of court with Frye.

In a conversation with GBH, Su detailed an odd mix of online and an in-person interaction between her business and Frye, a serial plaintiff who has filed dozens of sex discrimination lawsuits against Golden State businesses. In a 2014 report on a failed attempt to receive $4,000 in compensation when he says he wasn’t offered discounts at Brea’s Cha Cha’s Latin Kitchen during two “Senorita Thursday” nights, reported that Frye had already filed more than 40 sex discrimination lawsuits up to that point in time four years ago.

For Eagle Rock, $10,000 of their crowdsourced funds will be used to cover a year’s worth of legal fees and a $1,500 settlement to Frye. All extra money from GoFundMe and planned future fundraising efforts will go toward advocacy work to update California law to avoid the kind of legal situation Eagle Rock found itself, Su says.

“Would it be a hell of a lot easier to say, ‘OK, we’re done?’ Absolutely,” Su tells GBH. “But the reason we’re going public with this is the fact that I want as many people in the community to know about it as we can inform. We were incredibly naive to think we wouldn’t get targeted and it makes it a lot more real to our community in knowing that even in such a male-dominated industry where we’re constantly trying to improve the ratios [toward women], this still happens.”

Previous legal efforts by Frye show intent to use a California law as a source of financial gain. For him and other men’s rights activists, legal actions are taken under the state’s Unruh Civil Rights Act, which is meant to cover “all arbitrary and intentional discrimination by a business establishment on the basis of personal characteristics.” Its original intention was to offer protections to women and people of color.

Within something of a gray area, the act has allowed for complaints to be waged against a variety of businesses for situations like providing discounts to women but not men, or perceived exclusion of one gender identity over another. Frye had previously filed high-profile complaints against Playboy in 2011, a Four Seasons Hotel in 2013, a Donald Trump-owned golf course in 2014, and others. In the latter case, the issue was raised after Frye discovered that the course offered 25% off green fees to women as part of Breast Cancer Awareness Month.

"Providing discounted green fees to only female patrons is as offensive, archaic and unlawful as giving discounted green fees to only male patrons, or charging people of color more than Caucasians for green fees, or charging homosexuals more than heterosexuals for green fees," Frye said in his class-action lawsuit, as reported in the Los Angeles Times.

Frye’s connection to men’s rights efforts—the idea that males are discriminated against—stems from a connection to the National Coalition for Men, which has reported his membership. He also runs the website Among Frye’s legal representation in the past decade has been attorney Alfred Rava, who Bloomberg identified as secretary for the organization, although he denied it to the publication.

When contacted by GBH about Frye’s potential lawsuit against Eagle Rock and the eventual settlement, Rava noted in an email that “you have no firsthand knowledge of any such lawsuit because there is none.”

Rava declined to provide further comment, saying that after looking at the Good Beer Hunting website, “you appear to be a leftwinger,” before signing off with the signature “MAGA!” — the acronym for President Donald Trump’s slogan, “Make America Great Again.”

Reached by GBH, Frye said that Rava’s statements “completely convey my position on this matter,” but would not elaborate further. He added that Eagle Rock ownership has made “libelous statements” as well as “additional libelous attacks” on the Department of Fair Employment and Housing.

But the situation as seen by Rava and Frye is not so clear for a lawyer who previously represented Frye.

In 2012, Janet Sobel represented four men—Frye included—who filed a complaint against Dick's Sporting Goods’ Golf Galaxy stores for a 2010 promotion of "Women's Night," which offered discounts, gift cards, and more to females.

“On Women's Night, female millionaires such as Nancy Pelosi or Sarah Palin would have been allowed into Golf Galaxy's stores and provided with the gift cards, gifts, refreshments, and opportunities to win thousands of dollars worth of merchandise,” the complaint read, “while male consumers, who may have recently lost their jobs, would have been denied entry in Golf Galaxy and the accommodations, advantages, facilities, privileges, or services provided to only female consumers and/or to only female consumers and their male spouses that night.”

In a conversation with GBH, Sobel expressed belief in the by-the-book interpretation of the Unruh Act as a means to encourage equality in a situation such as commerce, but to issue challenges to something like Eagle Rock’s Women’s Beer Forum, which is focused on education and open to all, goes “overboard.”

“To me, there’s a difference between gender discrimination where you offer one gender some kind of a discount or a special price because of their gender,” she says. “To me, that’s not what this Women’s Forum was all about.”

“I’m sure I don’t share the view of my former client, Steve Frye, about this issue,” she added.

Sobel says that in recent years she hasn’t intimately followed gender discrimination complaints that fall close to men’s rights issues like the ones Frye has waged, but tells GBH that social events that are gender-focused but not gender-specific should be allowed without the threat of legal action.

All this is what apparently set Frye on a direct line toward Eagle Rock and its Women’s Beer Forum. According to Su, Frye contacted the brewery in November 2017 when he says he was told the forums were for women only. He hadn’t bought admission and was offered a tasting, but declined.

The events, which are open to all, didn't at the time have explicit language stating that the program was solely for women, despite the name. Eagle Rock now offers a disclaimer that while the forums were originally created for people who identify as female, those who also identify as men are welcome and can contact the brewery directly with any questions.

Depending on the range of beers served as part of sampling and presentation, tickets usually run $12-$25 to cover costs, Su said. An average forum might host about 30 people with a cap of 50, and men have been in attendance as guests and presenters. Previous forums have covered topics like specific beer styles, fruit and adjuncts, or pairings with spirits or ice cream.

Frye filed his complaint with the state in November 2017 and completed an affidavit that was signed Jan. 31, 2018. In it, Frye said that he emailed Eagle Rock on Nov. 7, 2017 about joining a Women's Beer Forum and in his statement says he was told it was for "women only." He adds in his submission to the state that he returned on Nov. 15 and asked to participate in the event, "and I was told by the bartender once again it was a women's only event."

However, when Su compiled a collection of information about the monthly forum events to submit to the Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH), staff statements contradicted the claim.

One key response came from an Eagle Rock bartender, who in submitted materials to the state, noted that Frye came to the taproom and asked to be allowed into Eagle Rock's brewhouse hours before that night’s Women’s Beer Forum. During those evenings, the event is held in that space once it's cleared and safe, but during business hours, the area is active in the production of beer. The bartender also said in their statement that Frye specifically asked if that area was where the Women's Beer Forum took place.

"When our bartender said that you can't just go in there, he kind of took that as denial for him to enter," Su says.

Eagle Rock submitted their information to DFEH around the start of 2018 and didn’t hear anything until September. When filing a complaint with the department, an investigator is assigned to the case to determine whether discrimination has taken place while at the same time, mediation is also offered between parties. Kevin Kish, director of DFEH, tells GBH that in this instance, Frye's complaint against Eagle Rock didn't even get far enough to be considered by the DFEH legal division.

"In any point in the process, the parties can settle, and in this case, all that happened before a final determination of merit was made," he says, adding the an investigator did talk to Frye and Eagle Rock, but they "reached a resolution" without DFEH pursuing anything further. By settling with Frye, the case was dropped, but that doesn’t mean Su is done with it all together.

“It killed me to have to settle, but the reality of potentially losing our business and home over it—I can’t realistically do that to my team or my family,” Su says. “With regard to am I OK with just settling and walking away, pretending it never happened? I’m really not OK with that.”

Starting this month, Su has begun conversations with legal experts to learn what she needs to do to help facilitate an update or change to California state law that will better protect vulnerable companies from complaints like Frye’s, which exist within the letter of the law, but are potentially more financially opportunistic than protective of rights.

Based on Eagle Rock’s GoFundMe campaign alone, the brewery has already raised about $6,200 above its original $10,000 goal that will go toward the effort.

“Trying to instigate some form of change to close some of these loopholes is something that I feel really strongly about because this is a community we’ve worked very hard to build,” Su says. “In the beer industry, we have constant conversations about how we can bring more women into the dialogue of beer and [Women’s Beer Forum] is a way we try to do that, otherwise this will always be a male-dominated sport as it has been for generations.”

Along with engaging with other business owners with tips on how to avoid these kinds of threats based on her own experience, Su wants to be a part of the exploration for drafting a new law or amendment to the Unruh Act. Along with extra money from the GoFundMe effort, she says she’ll continue to look for ways to raise funds that can go toward the effort.

The way to get there may be expectedly convoluted, as so many political efforts can be. Sobel, Steve Frye’s former attorney, says that any statutory revisions or clarifications would likely end up being made in the state’s legislature.

“If this were to come before the California Supreme Court, I would think they defer to the legislature,” Sobel says. “That way they can kind of indicate the will of their constituents and if people really wanted to engage on it.”

What comes next, then, appears to based on a public relations effort. What that is, what it looks like, or how much it costs is to be determined. But after the stress and worry of her own situation, Su’s intent is clear.

“I don’t think any of this would be as meaningful or as useful if there wasn’t transparency in what I’d like to do next,” Su says. “We’re going to move on from here, but the ultimate goal is getting loopholes closed so our community can continue to operate the way we do without worrying about these kinds of actions.”

—Bryan Roth