When Megan’s Organic Market needed a promo to bring in more business, the San Luis Obispo weed shop turned to a cheeky play on “ladies’ night” discounts, offering 16 percent off to women during certain store hours. “On average, women make $.84 for every dollar their male counterparts make. What?! As a company that is founded, majority owned and managed by women, we think this is absurd,” the online advertisement read.
However, California law doesn’t allow for prices of products to differ based on gender — and so the promo added a small caveat: “If you’re a man, and reap the benefits of pay inequality, and also want to redeem this discount, be our guest.”
This caught the eye of a man named Steve Frye, who claims he wasn’t offered the discount when he stepped into the store in June. Frye is now suing Megan’s Organic Market over the promo and wants $4,000 in statutory damages for every man who was ignored.
“As we’ve said to others interested in this case, the nature of the promotion that Mr. Frye took objection to was an effort, as part of our socially-conscious company culture, to raise awareness of the gender pay gap,” CEO and co-founder Megan Souza writes in a statement to MEL. “Our promotion focused on this issue, while simultaneously offering that anyone of any gender who wanted to take advantage of the promotion could.”
To say Frye has a history of such lawsuits is an understatement. By one report, he’s filed more than 40 cases in the last 15 years, including a lawsuit against Playboy in 2011 for charging him to attend a “Leather and Lace” party while some women were let in for free. That same year, Frye sued a golf club in wealthy Ranchos Palos Verdes, California, over a breast cancer awareness sale for women. In 2013, he sued a Mexican restaurant in L.A. for a discounted “Señorita Night” menu (despite the restaurant offering him the discounted drinks and dishes). More lawsuits came in 2014, 2015 and 2017.
In the last three years, Frye has brought lawsuits against the woman-owned Eagle Rock Brewery, Palo Alto Golf Club and a small fishing shop named Virg’s Landing, all for hosting events and offering discounts to encourage women to participate. In almost all cases, Frye’s M.O. is the same: He claims his targets hurt his wallet and were “shaming” him for being a man; he then demands a chunk of money for himself and every man affected by the promotion.
It doesn’t seem to matter that the businesses are often willing to offer him the same deal. And though he has lost cases repeatedly, Frye once claimed he has settled about half of them and won money in others.
He is also notably a former member of the National Coalition for Men, a San Diego-based group with chapters around the country, made up largely of volunteer lawyers who agitate around issues of divorce, family courts and paternity. The coalition has often boosted “ladies’ night” lawsuits from around the U.S., and led the charge on a few cases of its own.
The action is especially hot in California, thanks to the expansive 1959 Unruh Civil Rights Act, which prohibits businesses from various forms of discrimination based on factors like gender, race and age. A landmark 1985 decision found that gendered discounts like “ladies’ night” promotions were also discriminatory under the state’s act, and the decision set the stage for decades of contentious battles.
Other states, like Washington, have outright ruled that these small discounts don’t disadvantage men. But California, Pennsylvania, Maryland and Wisconsin have deemed such promos illegal unless they’re offered to all. And regardless of specific state policies, similar lawsuits have taken root across the country, including in New York City, Denver and New Jersey.
Crucially, many of these cases can lead to paydays. California’s Unruh Act awards up to $4,000 in statutory damages for each particular instance of discrimination, notes Daniel Rasmussen, a veteran of “ladies’ night” cases who is currently defending a shooting range from a new Frye lawsuit. “Obviously, I feel that discriminating against somebody based on race, religion or gender is something that should be discouraged. The problem comes when people try to use the law as an opportunity to make money. It’s pretty clear by their pattern of practice that they feel strongly about the issue and use it to make money,” Rasmussen tells me. “I’ve interviewed them in depositions, and many of these fellows that used to be, for instance, in the [National Coalition for Men, or NCFM] have very strong feelings about discrimination. Most of them have had experiences with the courts, in divorces or other proceedings, that have been very negative for them. And so, my experience is, these lawsuits are kind of striking back at the system.”
In that sense, what Frye has accomplished is a serious subversion of the roots of this legislation, which was designed to protect people within a society dominated by white men. Regardless, Rasmussen observes that there’s a contingent of lawyers in California that enjoy taking on “ladies’ night” cases, often for a small contingency fee. These lawyers are part of the larger landscape of the “men’s rights” movement, which advocates for resistance based on the premise that men as a whole are under attack in modern society.
This assumption ignores many other social forces at play, says Emily Carian, an assistant professor of sociology at California State University, San Bernardino, and an expert on MRA movements. “One thing to keep in mind is who men’s rights activists blame for what they perceive as discrimination. The movement claims that feminism has ‘oppressed’ men. Empirical data doesn’t support the idea that men are an oppressed group. Also, businesses do these promotions to make money, not because they’re feminist organizations,” she explains.
Other notable cases include the 2008 lawsuit against Angel Stadium in Anaheim, California for a tote-bag giveaway for mothers on Mother’s Day. Launched by NCFM member Michael Cohn and lawyer Alfred Rava, allegedly the then-secretary of the coalition, the lawsuit claimed the roughly 20,000 men in attendance deserved damages of $4,000 each for being denied a tote bag.
Rava replied to a request for comment, noting that he has represented Frye more than any other attorney. “Mr. Frye is not a member of any so-called ‘men’s rights,’ ‘women’s rights,’ ‘nonbinary rights’ or male, female or nonbinary advocacy groups, although he does strongly support equal rights for men, women, nonbinary and all persons,” he writes in a statement. “All of Mr. Frye’s concluded and pending Unruh Civil Rights Act lawsuits have resulted in the defendant businesses ending their sexist, discriminatory and unlawful business practice of treating consumers unequally based solely on their sex.”
Why would anyone waste their time and money supporting a fight over a free tote bag? The answer might lie in the reactionary worldview that MRAs use to justify their anger toward perceived advantages women have gained. But viewing gender dynamics as a zero-sum game has serious repercussions. The biggest example may be Roy Den Hollander, the self-proclaimed “Anti-Feminist” lawyer who loved frivolous gender-discrimination suits. He gained publicity for a string of “ladies’ nights” cases in New York, as well as a lawsuit aimed at Columbia University for teaching a “women’s studies” course. But Den Hollander, a former NCFM member, also quietly harbored a violent rage; it eventually sparked multiple killings intended to quiet his legal enemies. Den Hollander was found dead by suicide on July 20, 2020, a day after murdering a rival lawyer and the son of a female judge he despised.
At the very least, the actions of Frye and others like him can reinforce the cycle by which misogyny leads to real-world oppression. Souza, of Megan’s Organic Market, declined to comment on the impact on her mental health and business. But another woman, Mandy Rodriguez, was blunt about the fear and anxiety she experienced when she was served with a lawsuit from Frye in 2018 for DJ-ing a party designed as a safe and exclusive space for women. “I was very stressed out. There was a lot of crying, a lot of tears,” Rodriguez told NBC San Diego. “I actually went to a really dark place, and it was scary, very scary.”
Then there’s Ting Su, the owner of Eagle Rock Brewery in L.A. and the target of Frye’s ire over a women-in-beer event. After being sued in 2018, Su decided to settle with Frye instead of going to court, afraid that it would lead to the bankruptcy of her brewery. Thankfully, the brewery garnered $10,000 in donations — and in addition to covering a year’s worth of legal fees and Frye’s $1,500 settlement, Su vowed to use funds to advocate and ultimately change the law around frivolous gender-discrimination suits.
“Would it be a hell of a lot easier to say, ‘Okay, we’re done?’ Absolutely,” Su told the website Good Beer Hunting. “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.”
In the end, the “ladies’ night” lawsuit is a kind of last stand against the march of modern feminism. There are ways to address aspects of the law — again, states like Washington have found that gendered promotions can be perfectly legal, noting in a Supreme Court decision that such cases “erode public respect” for civil rights laws. But Rasmussen warns that slicing up a law like the Unruh Act could accidentally lead to other consequences. “I’m very wary of throwing the baby out with the bathwater,” he says.
More importantly, he believes that men’s anger and discontent is at the core of this phenomenon, and that the monetary payout plays into their sense of justice. “I honestly don’t have any reason to believe that these particular gentlemen don’t have the underlying motive — [thinking] that men are treated badly, and therefore, they must bring grievances to address that,” he says. “I guess that’s what our system is about, right? Trying to address grievances.”
It just so happens, those grievances can look as petty as a man throwing a legal tantrum over a minor discount on pot. But for MRAs, victimization is the whole point.
Correction: A previous version of the story noted that Daniel Rasmussen represented the operator of Angel Stadium in a lawsuit and that Steve Frye was involved in the incident. It was a sponsor of the giveaway, not the stadium operator; Frye was not present at the stadium.