Business

Uber, but for women? Probably illegal, experts say

Chariot for Women’s founder, Michael Pelletz, and president, Kelly Pelletz.

CARLY GILLIS/CHARIOT FOR WOMEN

Chariot for Women’s founder, Michael Pelletz, and president, Kelly Pelletz.

It seems like a promising way to fill a market niche: an Uber-like service that aims to give female passengers peace of mind by ensuring that another woman is always behind the wheel.

But there is potentially a big problem. Civil rights lawyers say the new service being touted by local entrepreneurs, Chariot for Women, would probably conflict with Massachusetts’ antidiscrimination laws.

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“This company sounds great. Whether it’s legal or not is a different question,” said Joseph L. Sulman, an employment law specialist based in West Newton.

Chariot for Women, based in Charlton, is planning to launch its service on April 19. The company unveiled its plans last week.

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Founder Michael Pelletz declined to address the legal questions on Monday. “We’re getting our ducks in a row. Right now, we’re concentrating on launching,” Pelletz said.

On its website Chariot said Pelletz, a former Uber driver, decided to form the business after a male passenger who was incoherent and barely conscious made him wonder how a female driver would have felt in his shoes.

The encounter also spurred him thinking about the safety of female passengers.

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“How many times did he pick up college girls at 2 or 3 a.m.? How many times did he watch as they spilled out of Boston clubs and into the wrong ride-share car?” reads an introduction on the Chariot for Women website. “Michael has two daughters, and the thought of them doing this was like a knife to the chest.”

The safety of female passengers has dogged Uber and Lyft Inc. and regulators around the country are debating new requirements for ride-hailing services that include background check procedures. Earlier this year, former Uber driver Abderrahim Dakiri was convicted in Boston of assaulting a 21-year-old woman who was a passenger in his vehicle. The victim in that case is one of two women who have sued Uber in federal court, alleging improper safety screening of drivers.

In New York, a new ride-for-hire service called SheTaxis, or SheRides, faced questions from regulators in 2014 when it launched an app that connects female passengers with women drivers.

SheTaxis representatives did not return messages seeking comment. But the company has previously said it would address gender-discrimination questions by routing ride requests from men to alternate car-service providers.

Chariot for Women said it aims to ensure the safety of both riders and drivers by leaving adult men out of the equation — women drivers don’t have to worry about physically threatening fares, the company said on its website, because Chariot allows only women and children as passengers.

Drivers will have to answer “a random security question that changes daily to ensure her identity,” while passengers will have to say a “safe word” that pops up on both the driver’s and rider’s phone screens to ensure they are getting in the correct car.

Attorney General Maura Healey’s office, which enforces state civil rights law, declined to comment on Chariot for Women’s business model. But civil rights lawyers said it would be difficult for such car service to win a discrimination lawsuit.

“Companies that provide a service need to accept potential customers without discriminating,” said Dahlia C. Rudavsky, is a partner in the Boston firm of Messing, Rudavsky & Weliky.

“There’s nothing wrong with advertising particularly to a female customer base,” Rudavsky said. “But if a company goes further and refuses to pick up a man, I think they’d potentially run into legal trouble.

Refusing to hire men as drivers could be an even clearer legal problem, said Sulman.

“To limit employees to one gender, you have to have what the law calls a bona fide occupational qualification. And that’s a really strict standard,” he said. “The law’s really tough on that. For gender, it’s not enough to say, ‘we really just want to have a female here because our customers prefer that to feel safer.’ ”

Exceptions that would qualify, he said, could include prison guards or social workers at women’s shelters, “places where there’s constant or near-constant close contact with only women. And not just contact, but intimate contact, which is a part of your job,” Sulman said.

Some businesses have won special consideration under state law. In 1996, a Boston lawyer sued women-only health club Healthworks because he couldn’t apply to become a member. A judge agreed, but opponents eventually lobbied the state Legislature to carve out an exemption in state gender discrimination law for fitness facilities.

Curt Woodward can be reached at curt.woodward@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @curtwoodward.
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