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October 2017

What’s in a Name‭?

Many remember the story of Bob Lobel and Woodland Golf Club in Massachusetts. It made all the Boston papers and was even covered in this magazine.

For those who can’t recall, Lobel, a former TV sportscaster, had been invited to the club as the guest of a member. But because of several physical maladies, including spinal stenosis and some knee and hip surgeries, he couldn’t walk. Lobel played with a specialized cart with a swivel seat. But Woodland wouldn’t allow the cart, so in 2015 Lobel sued under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Late this spring, a judge ruled in favor of Woodland, issuing a summary judgement because the club was exempt from the law under which the suit was filed.

Putting aside whether it’s good form for a guest to sue the club he was invited to play or whether a club is morally obligated to make accommodations for certain infirmities; or whether the cart Lobel used would cause any damage to the course, the question on which the case turned was this: Is Woodland a private club and, as such, is it exempted from the Americans with Disabilities Act?

The answer to the second question is a clear and unequivocal, yes. Under Title III of the ADA, private clubs are exempted, just as they’re exempted from many statutes, including some forms of discrimination. It’s how clubs like Burning Tree Club in Bethesda, Maryland, Butler National in Chicago and Pine Valley in New Jersey continue to exclude women members. They’re private and, thus, exempted from certain “public accommodation” laws.

In “Lobel v. Woodland,” the only remaining question for the court was: Does Woodland qualify as a private club? Legal precedent sets an eight-step test to answer this question: 1) the genuine selectivity in membership: in other words, if anyone can walk up to the door, pay a fee and become a member, it’s not, in the eyes of the court, a private club; 2) the membership’s control over operations; 3) the club’s history; 4) the use of the facility by nonmembers, as in, how much non-member play is allowed and how much business is from those outside membership; 5) the purpose of the club’s existence; 6) whether it advertises for members; 7) whether it’s for profit or nonprofit; and (8) the formalities observed by the club, like bylaws and meetings.

Under those guidelines, U.S. District Court Judge Dennis Saylor wrote: “The undisputed material facts demonstrate Woodland exercises genuine selectivity in the admission of its members; that its members control its operations; that it doesn’t actively solicit new members from the general public through public advertising; and non-members aren’t permitted regular or indiscriminate use of the facilities. All of those factors, taken together, weigh heavily in favor of a finding that Woodland is a private club within the meaning of the ADA. The Court concludes Woodland is a “private club” and that it is therefore exempt from the requirements of the Americans With Disabilities Act. Woodland is accordingly entitled to summary judgment in its favor.”

The ruling could reach deep within the private club industry and will likely be used as an affirmative defense in similar cases. But the tone of Saylor’s ruling suggests the private-club exemption is narrow. Operators wishing to qualify for that exemption will have to adhere to the eight steps carefully.

—Steve Eubanks



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