Originally created 12/01/99

Golf course may be court-monitored in discrimination case



BOSTON -- Using a tactic traditionally reserved for desegregating schools and cleaning up corrupt unions, Massachusetts is asking for a court-appointed monitor to oversee a country club that discriminated against women.

Nine female golfers won a $1.97 million verdict against the Haverhill Golf and Country Club this fall when a jury unanimously decided the women were unfairly denied the sought-after "primary memberships" that come with choice starting times and greater access to the club.

In a motion scheduled to be heard next week in Suffolk Superior Court, the state attorney general asked Judge John Cratsley for an injunction that would prevent the club from treating women as second-class members. Among other remedies, it asks the judge to put a monitor in charge of the club for five years to guarantee the club's compliance with state anti-discrimination laws.

"It would be the first of its kind for there to be a monitor to address discrimination issues at a country club," assistant attorney general Anthony Rodriguez said Tuesday. "It's necessary to protect against future acts of discrimination -- to ensure equal opportunity policies are in place so that women have equal access to the club."

The judge will also consider at the hearing the women's request for attorney fees and the club's motions for a new trial and for a reduction in the verdict, which included nearly $1.5 million in punitive damages.

"If the judge believes that these people can't monitor themselves -- which they've shown historically that they can't -- if they can't figure out what they're doing is wrong, I think he will appoint a monitor," plaintiffs' lawyer Marsha Kazarosian said.

The club has said it will appeal, and it won't change its policies until the appeal is decided. Attorney Henry Owens did not immediately return a call seeking comment Tuesday, but during the trial the club argued the women were simply unwilling to pay extra for the top membership.

The jurors disagreed, finding that the club discriminated against women in its rules and practice. Even when full membership was technically open to women, they were routinely steered into partial memberships, and in some cases men jumped ahead of women on the waiting list because of "special circumstances."

More importantly, the jury also found enough public interaction with the private club to require obedience to anti-discrimination laws.

"It's a question of whether the course is a public or private accommodation," said Paul Weiler, a professor at the Harvard Law School and an expert in sports and the law. "This is essentially the same issue posed by the Casey Martin case."

Martin, a disabled golfer, sued for the right to ride a cart in PGA events. While his case involved professional golf tournaments, the Haverhill Nine needed to prove that the private club was in some sense open to the public.

"This is a more complicated one because it is a private course," Weiler said. "You don't have professionals coming in, or fans coming in."

During the trial, the woman described a club where men got the prime tee times and their own card room while women were sometimes allowed fewer privileges than youth members.

"When they complained, they were treated like little kids complaining. They were quieted down and pushed off to the side. They were made promises to and nobody ever kept the promises," Kazarosian said.

After the suit was filed in 1995, fellow members wouldn't play with the plaintiffs' husbands, she said.

"After the verdict came down, it even got worse, which amazes me, because you'd think people would say, 'Something isn't right here. Fourteen jurors made a decision that the club was wrong."'

In addition to the monitor, the injunction asks the club to eliminate all gender distinctions from its policies and bylaws. The state also wants the club to:

-- Offer all limited members the opportunity to become primary members.

-- Inform women of all of their membership options.

-- Maintain a chronological waiting list for new memberships.

-- Refrain from intimidating women who seek full membership.

-- Open club meetings to all members.

"It's more than just about tee times," Rodriguez said. "It's about civil rights. It's about retaliation against the women, intimidation and threats against the women that tried to assert their civil rights."

The rules were remnants of the days when most men worked and women usually didn't. Coveted weekend morning tee times were reserved for the men, and they were given primary memberships to reflect that.

"Why a retired man should be able to play on Saturday morning and a full-time working woman would not be able to play is irrational as well as unethical," Weiler said.