Tribunal Dismisses Hotpot-Based Marital-Status-Discrimination Claim

An allegedly discriminatory hotpot (image: Praneeth Thalla, CC-BY-SA 4.0 cropped)

As you can tell by the number of hyphens I had to deploy in the headline, this one was hard to classify. But it wasn’t hard to dismiss.

According to Wikipedia, “hotpot” is “a dish whereby a heat source placed on the dining table keeps a pot of soup stock simmering, and a variety of … foodstuffs and ingredients are served beside the pot for the diners to put into the hot stock.” (The article says it’s “also known as steamboat,” and I find that term strangely appealing but the court’s opinion uses “hotpot,” and I will too.) An example can be seen above. The idea is straightforward, but hotpot is also more elaborate than many dishes because of the many plates involved. This is my opinion, at least. I don’t claim to be some kind of steamboat expert or anything.

At Red Hill Restaurant in Wellington, New Zealand, ordering hotpot costs $48 per person, and there is a two-person minimum. According to Red Hill, it introduced the latter requirement because rising costs have made it “not economical for Red Hill to prepare a hotpot for one paying customer only.” Seems plausible. This might require more from servers than other dishes, or maybe they don’t want to pay for a whole bunch of single-person hotpots. Or maybe they just want more money. The point is that a seller is generally allowed to charge whatever the seller wants to charge. If a potential buyer considers that charge to be too high, the buyer’s sole remedy, ordinarily, is to rotate 180 degrees about his or her vertical axis and move away from the product or service being offered.

Or you could sue.

But there are only a limited number of reasons such a suit might be valid. One of them might be discrimination on the basis of some protected characteristic. For example, if you charged $48 per [insert race] person, but $96 per [insert other race] person, that would be illegal because it discriminates on the basis of race. On the other hand, if you charged $48 per person but $96 if that person is Aaron Rodgers, who is indisputably a Hall-of-Fame quarterback but also, it turns out, a kook; or if you just don’t like Aaron Rodgers because maybe he ran over your cat, I don’t know, that would not be illegal because those things are not protected characteristics. Discriminating for reasons like that is not illegal.

According to Taiming Zhang, Red Hill’s two-person minimum is illegal because it “amounts to indirect marital status discrimination as it is less likely that a single person would be dining with another person who is prepared to share the cost of a hotpot meal.” According to New Zealand’s Human-Rights Review Tribunal, no it isn’t because it doesn’t. Zhang v. The First Org Ltd (Strike Out) [2024] NZHRRT 11.

Mr. Zhang, who is single, and was even less surprisingly representing himself, agreed that a single person could still order hotpot for one. So his right to hotpot had not itself been denied. And he did not claim that Red Hill had refused to provide him with hotpot or otherwise treated him less favorably because he is single. But, he contended, its policy had the effect of treating him differently because of his marital status and therefore constituted indirect discrimination, illegal in New Zealand under sections 21 and 65 of its Human Rights Act.

Well, as I said yesterday in a conference call regarding a lawsuit where the plaintiffs want a hell of a lot more than $48, some arguments are so dumb it actually makes it harder to articulate why they’re dumb. This might be one of those situations. The easiest way to put it is probably that while Red Hill’s policy does discriminate against “single diners,” it does that because they happen to be alone at the time, not because they’re unmarried.

As the tribunal put it, “even if we were to accept that persons dining alone are more likely than not to be single, if most single people dined in groups of two or more the impact of Red Hill’s policy may not be significant, and therefore would not constitute a material disadvantage to single people as a group.” And Zhang had not alleged any facts that would show otherwise. Nor had he given the tribunal any reason to think “information about how many people dine alone at Red Hill is available or what the marital status of those diners is,” or “the marital status of those who dine in groups….” I take it that Red Hill doesn’t ask its customers to fill out census forms before serving them, which seems fine to me.

In short, Zhang was really arguing that Red Hill wanted to charge him “too much” for hotpot, but the tribunal seemed to be believe that affordable hotpot is not a fundamental human right:

As a person dining alone, Mr Zhang objects to paying the full price for a serving of hotpot. He claims that he should be able to order a single portion of hotpot in return for which he agrees it is reasonable to pay more than half the price of the minimum two-person portion on offer. Given Mr Zhang accepted it would be appropriate to charge some additional amount for an individual serving size of hotpot, Red Hill argued that Mr Zhang’s principal complaint is about the amount he is required to pay, rather than about discrimination per se and is frivolous for this reason.

We agree that the essence of this claim is about the minimum charge for a serving of hotpot and how large that serving should be. For Mr Zhang to claim that the non-discrimination right is engaged by this question trivialises the right’s importance.

Case dismissed.