Can My Marina Legally Charge Another Boater a Much Lower Slip Fee?

Posted: April 10, 2013  |  By: David Weil, Esq.

I keep my boat at a small marina on a lake in Arizona. It recently came to my attention that a fellow boat owner was paying $200 per month less than other tenants for the same size boat and the same type of slip, and he had been renting under this arrangement for more than five years. I asked the marina manager about it and was told simply that the rent for the boat in question was being increased. That’s great, but the tenant received a windfall compared to the rest of us, amounting to more than $13,000 over a five-year period. The marina has offered to reduce my rent by 10 percent for a one-year period, but that’s a fraction of the amount I was overcharged. Do I have any rights in a case like this, for being discriminated against?
Unfortunately, the term “discrimination” is thrown around a little too often. From a legal standpoint, people are protected from discrimination only when they are treated differently because they are a member of a “suspect class.”            

The courts have held that people are protected from discrimination based upon race, religion, ethnic background, age or gender, and they have described these groups as “suspect classes.” No court has ever held that a marina tenancy should be considered a suspect class.            

So, unless our reader can establish that the difference in the slip rental rates was due to discrimination on the basis of her membership in a suspect class, the problem she described will be characterized simply as different treatment, rather than “discrimination.”            

The fact remains that she entered into an agreement to pay a certain monthly slip rental rate. Somebody else was able to make a better deal, and they paid $200 per month less.            

That is different treatment but it is not discrimination. And, not to be insensitive, but she had no problem paying the higher rate until she learned that someone else had made a better deal.            

The only remaining issue for our reader is whether there are any specific laws that restrict this type of different treatment, regardless of whether it is a form of legal discrimination.            

A marina slip rental agreement is a maritime contract, which means that certain aspects of the transaction may be governed by federal law if the marina is located on a navigable waterway. If the marina is not on a navigable waterway, the rental agreement will be governed solely by state law.            

For the purposes of establishing federal admiralty jurisdiction, a navigable waterway is any body of water that is either navigable to the ocean or that crosses state lines. In Arizona, for example, Lake Havasu is navigable because it crosses the California/Arizona state line.            

Even if the marina is located on navigable waters, slip rental agreements will be governed by a mix of state and federal law. The applicability of state or federal law is determined by a “preemption” analysis. A federal law will preempt, or control over a state law if it directly contradicts the state law or if the subject matter is deemed to be a part of a broad federal regulatory scheme that addresses a wide range of issues relating to a particular legal field.            

A maritime transaction such as a slip rental agreement will probably be deemed to be part of a broad federal regulatory scheme and, as such, the specific terms and conditions of the agreement -- including the rental rate -- will be free from any state law restrictions. Since there is no specific federal law that governs the rental rates that may be charged by the marina, our reader is out of luck.            

I should note in closing that, notwithstanding the impact of federal maritime law on a slip rental agreement, marina eviction procedures are governed by state law. This may seem contrary to the preemption analysis described above, but an eviction procedure is initiated to remove a vessel from a slip, not to sell the vessel. It protects the property interests of the dock owner and does not technically concern a property interest in the vessel.            

As always, there are exceptions to every legal principle -- and then, of course, there are exceptions to the exceptions. Be sure to contact an experienced maritime attorney to discuss the facts of your particular case, if you have questions regarding these issues.

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