Norman Hirsch, a self-described “nerd” who grew up in South Florida, and Matthew Dwyer, a Boston real estate investor, insist they’re not the kind of people who impulsively head to court as a way to punish people for petty slights.
But, they said, actions that now President Donald Trump took when he bought a financially troubled country club on Donald Ross Road and turned it into Trump National Golf Club Jupiter left them no choice but to file suit.
“When you find you’re being charged to use a club when you can’t even get into a club, you feel you’ve been wronged. It’s a no-brainer,” said Hirsch, a 72-year-old North Palm Beach man who spearheaded what become a class-action lawsuit against the president’s massive real estate development company.
“It was so egregious,” agreed Dwyer, 63, who said he had previously never sued or been sued in his life. “I got a letter in the mail, saying ‘You’re out.’ Then, he began to bill us even though we were precluded from using the golf facilities.”
When U.S. District Judge Kenneth Marra on Wednesday agreed Hirsch, Dwyer and 63 other former club members had been wronged and ordered the Trump Organization to refund $4.8 million in membership deposits they had paid plus nearly $1 million in interest, the two said they felt vindicated.
But, both admitted it was a wild ride.
“We begin by suing a major real estate developer, moving to a presidential candidate to president-elect and then, when the verdict came down, the president of the United States,” said Dwyer, who like Hirsch and Bain & Company co-founder Ralph Williard, were the lead plaintiffs in the lawsuit. “It’s been a bizarre journey.”
Hirsch, a computer engineer who owns a network security firm, said he had high hopes in December 2012 when Trump announced he was purchasing the financially troubled club from Ritz-Carlton. Hirsch and his wife, Julie, went to a meeting at the clubhouse to meet the flamboyant developer, who was a star of the TV show “The Apprentice.”
“We shook hands and took pictures together and then it all went down hill,” Hirsch said.
Trump quickly made it clear that members like Hirsch, Dwyer and Williard, who couldn’t be reached for comment, weren’t welcome. For various reasons, they and scores of others had resigned from the club before Trump bought it but expected to continue to use the club until their deposits were refunded.
But in a letter that hit mailboxes shortly after the meeting, Trump wrote: “If you choose to remain on the resignation list, you’re out.”
The statement conflicted with the documents members signed with Ritz-Carlton when they paid membership deposits of between $41,000 and $210,000 to join the club, Marra ruled. Under the rules, members who resigned could continue to use the club until they were replaced by new members. Then, according to the rules, they would get back their deposits, which varied depending on whether they signed up to use the golf course or just the spa and whether they were full- or part-time members.
Further, when Trump purchased the sprawling club for a bargain price of $5 million, he agreed to accept responsibility for the $41 million the Ritz-Carlton had collected in refundable deposits, according to court papers.
Carrying out promise he made in the letter, Trump blocked those on the resignation list from entering the gatehouse. Then, even though they could no longer use the club, they continued to be billed from about $6,000 to $20,000 for annual dues and $1,800 for their annual spending obligation at the club in the gated community. Penalties and interest drove the bills higher.
“It was just ridiculous,” Hirsch said. “When that happened, I told myself, if I’m going to live as a human being, I’m going to sue you.”
“For someone to attempt to amend a contract unilaterally and force it on the other party is just stunning,” Dwyer agreed. “I’ve heard of the phenomenon, but I’ve never experienced such a blatant disregard for a contract and its enforceability.”
With his son, Eric Trump, running the club, Trump may not have fully understood why people were on the resignation list, Hirsch said.
“He wanted everyone to be happy, I don’t deny him that,” he said. “If I give him the benefit of the doubt, he probably thought, ‘If they’re on the resignation list, they don’t want to be there. I don’t want them throwing negative vibes around.” That kind of makes sense.”
But, Hirsch said, the club was beautiful. He said he resigned because Ritz-Carlton lowered the price of his membership from $55,000 to $35,000. He said he was told the only way to get the reduced price was to resign and then rejoin. Dwyer said he resigned because he was selling his partial ownership interest in a home in the community and his $41,000 membership was tied to his investment in the home.
During an August trial, Eric Trump testified that the club reached settlements with many who were on the resignation list. Further, in his letter, Donald Trump came up with an innovative way to keep the deposits of those who had announced their intention to resign.
His idea, he explained in the letter, was just one of his “concepts for making Trump National Golf Club Jupiter one of the finest clubs anywhere in the world!”
According to his concept, if those on the resignation list agreed to forfeit their deposits and remain members of the club, their dues would be reduced by 10 percent for three years. Further, they would be able to go to his other clubs in South Florida: Mar-A-Lago in Palm Beach, Trump International Golf Club in West Palm Beach and Trump National in Doral, near Miami.
Clearly, many jumped at the offer. By the time Judge Marra gave the lawsuit class-action status, many of the potential plaintiffs disappeared. Instead of fighting for $41 million in unrefunded deposits, the lawsuit was over $4.8 million.
In a statement, the Trump Organization said it plans to appeal the ruling. With interest growing at 0.81 percent annually on a $5.77 million bill, attorney Seth Lehrman, who represented the former club members, said he is hoping it reconsiders.
Hirsch and Dwyer said they are hopeful as well. With attorneys fees and other court expenses, Hirsch said it is doubtful he will get all of his deposit back.
“I don’t think I’ll be made whole financially, but I feel whole psychologically,” he said of winning the lawsuit.
Dwyer said he was heartened by Marra’s decision in the lawsuit he filed as a matter of principle. “Litigation is an alien world for us but for some people litigation is oxygen,” he said. “You hear horror stories about courtroom injustices but this is clearly not one of them. This is justice being served.”
Not surprisingly, neither man voted for Trump. But, Dwyer said, his vote wasn’t political, it was philosophical. And, he said, Marra’s ruling underscored that philosophy.
“I already believe America is a great country,” he said.