When is a deal not a deal?
When Donald Trump gets involved, according to three members of the former Ritz-Carlton Golf Club & Spa in Jupiter.
In a federal lawsuit first filed in 2013, they say a Trump entity, which bought the former Ritz club in 2012, wrongly canceled their memberships and refused to return their deposits within 30 days, as required.
Their lawsuit was a blip on the screen when it first was filed. But this year, with two major court wins to bolster their cause, the case has gained as much steam as Trump’s campaign for the Republican presidential nomination.
Still, Trump’s team scorns the complaint filed by the three. “We are going to win in a landslide,” Eric Trump, executive vice president of the Trump Organization, said in an interview Wednesday. “The lawsuit is frivolous.”
So far, though, it’s the plaintiffs who are winning in the courts.
In May, a U.S. District Court judge gave the club members’ lawsuit class action status, a legal victory that expanded the number of plaintiffs to more than 100. Trump appealed the decision and lost. A settlement attempt failed in August.
You might say, to use Trump’s lingo, that the members have had “so much winning.”
But who’s the real winner? Court documents and interviews tell a complicated case.
In depositions earlier this year, Trump said he and son, Eric, have turned around the troubled club, now known as Trump National Golf Club in Jupiter.
Indeed, the man who promises to “Make America Great Again” says he has done just that with this club.
“We have done a substantial upgrade to virtually all the facility: the clubhouse, the courts, the course, the public areas, the dining areas. Everything,” Trump said in an April deposition. “It’s like a brand new place.”
Some Trump National members agreed.
“When Trump bought it, I thought, ‘This guy’s gonna do great things with it,” said Rob Thomson, owner of Waterfront Properties real estate brokerage in Jupiter. “In my opinion, everything he did made the place better. It’s a beautiful club.”
“He’s rejuvenated the facility,” said Allison Nicklaus, a real estate agent at Golden Bear Realty in North Palm Beach and a former sales associate for the Ritz club. “I know members who use the facility and they are so happy with what’s he’s done. It’s a better club now.”
Trump may have made the club nicer, but the way his company engineered the change wasn’t right, according to former club members Norman Hirsch, Matthew Dwyer and Ralph Willard.
In fact, in their U.S. District Court lawsuit against Jupiter Golf Club, LLC, the Trump entity that owns the club, they say the entity breached their contract, misled them and then refused to give them back their money.
“We look forward to having a trial to hold the Trump Organization accountable for its failure to refund deposits to plaintiffs and class members,” said their lawyer, Seth Lehrman, of Fort Lauderdale.
The lawsuit is a window into the tactics of Trump, a part-time Palm Beacher who is just as witty and boastful in this litigation as he is on the campaign trail. During a deposition, when the Trump International Golf Club in West Palm Beach came up, Trump just had to say: “Which is by some accounts the number one course in the state of Florida.”
But not everyone loves Trump’s style.
This summer, residents of Trump Ocean Club, a condo, hotel and casino in Panama City, Panama, say they’ve had enough of Trump. The board fired Trump’s management company following what it says were more than $2 million in unauthorized debts at the complex, among other allegations outlined in a lengthy article by the Associated Press.
The Trump Organization denied any wrongdoing, but it agreed to step aside from managing the overall building. Instead, it will continue to manage 369 hotel rooms. One homeowner, who expressed admiration for Trump’s brand, also called him “a predatory businessman,” according to the AP.
Trump officials say they’re not the least bit concerned about the club members’ lawsuit, which they say has no merit.
The 285-acre Ritz residential golf community was built in the early 2000s. Located near the corner of Donald Ross Road and Alternate State Road A1A, the community features single-family homes and multifamily timeshares.
It also features the golf and country club now owned by Trump. In 2012, Trump paid $5 million for the club’s assets and liabilities. At the time of the purchase, he said he had had his eye on it for five years.
Soon after the purchase, Trump said he poured millions of dollars into the property. He made the golf holes “wider, bigger, longer, more effective.” He even built a new ballroom.
Trump invited the Ritz club members to “opt in” to his new membership terms, in exchange for a temporary discount on annual dues (to $17,500), plus access to other Trump properties, including Mar-A-Lago on Palm Beach.
But as part of the opt-in, the Ritz members had to agree that their membership, refundable under Ritz, was nonrefundable under Trump.
This was key.
In a Dec. 17, 2012, letter to members, Trump said the refund provision is an antiquated model and the reason the Ritz club was having trouble. If a club knew it had to refund deposits, the club would be less likely to plow money into costly improvements, Trump wrote.
As a result, the club began to look dated. And people joined a list to resign their memberships and recoup their deposits.
Trump had a problem with the resignation list. He wanted happy club members.
But if someone was on the list, “you’re probably not going to be a very good club member, you’re not going to be so happy,” he said in the April deposition. So in his letter to members, he wrote that if any club member remained on list, “you’re out…..As the owner of the club, I do not want them to utilize the club nor do I want their dues.”
In their lawsuit, the three former club members allege that when Trump set up the “opt in” nonrefundable membership, this action terminated their existing memberships. As a result, the three members should have received an automatic refund of their deposits within 30 days.
Their membership deposits ranged from $41,000 to $117,000, although other members have deposits that range from $35,000 to $210,000, according to court records.
Trumps’ lawyers countered in court documents that the Ritz club contract said members’ plan could be amended or even terminated at any time.
The plaintiffs maintain that any termination still required a refund of deposits.
Lehrman said Trump’s lawyers say they’re off the hook for paying refunds because the plaintiffs stopped paying dues. He added they did so only after Trump wrote in that December 2012 letter he didn’t want dues from people on the resignation list.
It’s not clear if the former club members will succeed in their claim. But what’s clear is they are in for a battle — despite their early wins in court.
“Good luck fighting city hall,” Thomson said. “(Trump) is not a competitor that loses often.”