California Appeals Court: Dating services can’t charge older folks more on belief they are wealthier

An online dating service can’t charge higher rates to customers over 30 even though they might be able to afford it, a state appeals court ruled Monday.

 A California court ruled on Monday, Jan. 29, 2018, that online dating services can’t charge older customers more on the belief they have more money than younger clients. (Photo Credit: Fotolia/Tribune News Service)

A California court ruled on Monday, Jan. 29, 2018, that online dating services can’t charge older customers more on the belief they have more money than younger clients. (Photo Credit: Fotolia/Tribune News Service)

The dating service, Tinder Plus, offers a basic online product without charge, but added a premium service in 2015 that charged $19.99 a month to customers over 30 and $9.99 or $14.99 for younger customers. The company said its research showed that younger customers had less money and were unlikely to enroll without discounts.

Some age-based price differentials may be justified by social policies or economic realities, like movie discounts for children or seniors, said the Second District Court of Appeal in Los Angeles. But the court said a pricing system based entirely on a customer’s age amounts to “prohibited arbitrary discrimination” under California law.

The 3-0 ruling was written by Brian Currey, a Los Angeles County Superior Court judge temporarily assigned to the appeals court.

Even if it’s generally true that older customers have more money than younger ones, Currey said, state civil-rights laws require customers to be treated as individuals rather than as members of a group based on characteristics such as race, sex or age.

The court noted past decisions that upheld other types of age-based price differentials, like movie-theater discounts for children and senior citizens, or a bank program that offered higher interest rates on deposits by seniors. But the court said those were linked to social policies, like retirement for the elderly and youths’ lack of access to employment income.

In contrast, the court cited the state Supreme Court’s 1985 ruling, by then-Chief Justice Rose Bird, that struck down “Ladies’ Night” discounts at bars and car washes as unlawful sex discrimination. The court also noted a 1982 ruling by the state’s high court saying a landlord could not refuse to rent apartments to families with minor children, a refusal based on the landlord’s stated preference for peace and quiet.

In Monday’s ruling, Currey noted that Tinder’s policy would “result in older individuals who earn less than some younger users being charged more than twice what those younger users must pay” for the same service. And he said Tinder’s argument could be used to justify higher prices “in even the most essential areas of commerce — such as grocery shopping, gasoline purchases, etc.”

Currey said, however, that another state appeals court had read the law differently: a San Francisco panel that upheld a luxury health club’s discount prices for 18- to 29-year-olds in 2015, on the grounds that members of that age group generally have less income than older adults.

That conflict could improve Tinder’s chances of getting the state Supreme Court to take up the issue, if the company decides to appeal. Its lawyer could not be reached for comment.

Al Rava, a lawyer for over-30 patrons who sued Tinder, called Monday’s ruling “a significant equal-rights victory for California consumers.”

News Story by Bob Egelko for SFGate