A local brewery in Glassell Park is trying to keep its forum promoting women's involvement in the craft beer industry afloat after it was targeted with a costly discrimination lawsuit filed by a self-proclaimed men's rights activist.
Ting Su, co-founder of the family-owned Eagle Rock Brewery, said she was forced to either settle the claim or shut down the Women's Beer Forum seminar series that she started in 2011 with the goal of helping other women get a foothold in the male-dominated business of brewing.
The need for a women's group became clear to Su when she began navigating the industry herself after establishing the brewery with her husband and father-in-law in 2009. It's since gained a following with award-winning brews, including a blonde ale called Equinox that took home the coveted Best in Show at the San Diego International Beer Competition in 2013.
But Su noticed that women who came into their tasting room tended to know less about beer than their male companions, and showed interest in networking and learning more.
So she decided to start the forum "because it's such a male-dominated industry, both on the consumer side and on the professional side."
The monthly seminars were a success, drawing crowds of women — but also many men, who were involved in both leadership and supportive roles.
"We've had men both on the presentation side," delivering lectures, "as well as the consumer side," enjoying the accompanying tasting flights, Su told KTLA.
But in November 2017, the group got an email from a man named Stephen Frye, asking if men were allowed to attend the events.
Su explained the ensuing exchange in an interview on KCRW's "Press Play" Wednesday.
"Unfortunately, we had not explicitly trained anybody on, 'Don't ever say it's just for women,' but because it's called the Women's Beer Forum, she responded, 'The Women's Beer Forum is for women, but men are more than welcome to come and enjoy beers in the tasting room,' " Su said. "That was kind of where everything snowballed for us."
Frye is a member of the San Diego-based National Coalition for Men, which is known for filing discrimination cases under California's Unruh Civil Rights Act, a broad law that outlaws discrimination based on a person's sex, race and other characteristics. The men's coalition is behind some 300 Unruh lawsuits, according to the New York Times.
Frye's been the instigator of some of those himself. In 2011, he sued President Trump's Rancho Palos Verdes golf course because it was offering a 25 percent discount to "ladies" during October, which is recognized as breast cancer awareness month.
Frye also sued an Orange County restaurant to end its ladies' night, along with dozens of other similar lawsuits.
Su characterized the legal claims as a shakedown tactic.
"The predators that do this know small businesses can't afford the litigation, so almost everybody settles out of court," she said.
Su says she apologized to Frye about the email exchange and invited him to attend a future forum event, but he chose to file a discrimination claim under the Unruh Act.
She was faced with two options: Negotiate a settlement with Frye or face the potential lawsuit that would be filed and could have cost up to $100,000 in attorney's fees.
"There's nothing that we're doing that's actually illegal," Su said. "We had to settle because I didn't want to put the company out of business, tell all the team that they have to find other jobs and potentially lose my home over this. We had to settle just to protect the business."
In the KCRW interview, Su noted the brewery likely would have won the case, since it had documentation that men had historically played an active role in the forum. She said choosing to settle was "an incredibly challenging decision for us to make, particularly standing on principle alone."
She told the station the brewery settled out of court for $1,500 after negotiating Frye down from $8,000.
But the business still incurred a year's worth of legal expenses, and it's started a GoFundMe to help cover the costs.
And the legal battle isn't ending with the Women's Beer Forum. The brewery plans to dedicate some of the money raised through the GoFundMe campaign to advocate for amending loopholes in the Unruh Act that allow for such claims to be filed.
Su said she's remained humbled by the support of her fight for women's empowerment.
"We have such a following in the community that we're continuing on with (the forum)," she said.
KTLA contacted Frye for comment on this story, but attempts to reach him were unsuccessful.