- Jane Musgrave Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
Handing 65 former members of President Donald Trump’s golf club in Jupiter a resounding victory, a federal judge on Wednesday ordered the president’s massive real estate company to pay them $5.77 million in deposits he improperly pocketed.
“That is exactly to the penny of what we asked for,” said attorney Seth Lehrman, who represented former members of Trump National Golf Club Jupiter in the protracted litigation.
A spokesperson for the Trump Organization vowed to appeal the ruling by U.S. District Judge Kenneth Marra. “We respectfully disagree with the Court’s decision,” spokeswoman Amanda Miller said in a email.
But Lehrman said statements by both Trump and his son, Eric, sealed the breach of contract case for the former members, who claimed the business tycoon illegally changed the rules after he bought the ailing club from the Ritz-Carlton in 2012 for $5 million.
Trump got a bargain price for the club in a gated community off Donald Ross Road in Jupiter because he agreed to accept responsibility for the $41 million that Ritz-Carlton Golf Club & Spa owed members in refundable deposits. After taking over, Trump refused to return deposits to members who announced their intention to resign and he barred them from using the club.
In a letter to golf club members shortly after buying the club, Trump made his intentions clear. “If you choose to remain on the resignation list, you’re out,” wrote Trump, who has famously said he rarely loses lawsuits.
During an August trial, Eric Trump took this father’s statements a step further. “You’re either a member of the club or not a member of the club. That’s just how the golf industry works,” he told Marra. “You have to choose your poison. You can’t stay on the resignation list and get all the benefits of a full member. It’s just not fair.”
Eric Trump, who operates the Jupiter club owned by the Trump Organization, along with 17 others , acknowledged that the statement contradicted one he made in a 2015 deposition. “I have enough hubris to say I was wrong,” he said.
Hubris or not, it made the case simple for Marra, Lehrman said. “If you’re a member, you have access to the club. If you don’t have have access to the club, you’re not a member,” he said.
In ruling that Trump breached his contract with members, Marra said as much. “With access removed from this equation, a person would have no Club membership,” he wrote. “In other words, without a right to Club access, no membership would exist and this essential purpose of the membership contract would be nullified.”
By refusing entry to those who had announced their intention to resign, Trump revoked their memberships, he ruled. Under the contract, Trump had 30 days to refund the deposits after they were barred from using the golf course or clubhouse. By not doing so, Trump “committed a material breach of the Membership Agreement,” he wrote.
During the trial, Trump was in the heat of his presidential campaign and didn’t testify. Instead, a videotape of his deposition was played for Marra. He dodged most of the questions, claiming they would be better addressed by Eric.
Eric Trump claimed that the members who sued were simply trying to jump to the top of the list of those waiting in line for refunds. The members would receive their deposits back once new members joined, he said.
Cribbing his father’s famous campaign motto, Eric said renovations the Trump Organization made to the club “made it great again.”
The spokesperson for the New York-based development company echoed that sentiment in her response to Marra’s ruling. “At the time Trump purchased the Club, it was suffering financially, making it unlikely that these members would ever get back their deposits,” Miller wrote. “At trial, we presented overwhelming evidence that the plaintiffs’ memberships were never recalled and that the plaintiffs had waived this argument during the course of the litigation.”
In his 22-page ruling, Marra made no mention of any waiver. He said he based his decision on the “plain meaning of words used” in the contract.
This isn’t the only time Trump’s involvement with the golf club has made news. After a March press conference, during which Trump surrounded himself with Trump steaks, Trump magazine and other Trump products to prove his business acumen, a reporter for the conservative website Breitbart News accused his then-campaign manager of manhandling her. Palm Beach County State Attorney Dave Aronberg declined to file charges against Corey Lewandowski.
Marra, a former Palm Beach County circuit judge who was elevated to the federal bench in 2002 by President George W. Bush, acknowledged that five months had elapsed since the trial, which came weeks after Trump demanded that a federal judge in California remove himself from a lawsuit over Trump University because of his Mexican heritage.
Marra insisted the delay didn’t have anything to do with Trump’s election.
“The timing of the issuance of this decision was based on the Court’s docket and other case-related obligations, and was not in any way based upon recent historical events,” he wrote in a footnote.
Trump settled the Trump University case shortly after winning the presidency. He also dropped a lawsuit he filed against Palm Beach County about jets flying near Mar-a-Lago, his private club in Palm Beach.
In his ruling Marra also made it clear that he wasn’t being discourteous by referring to Trump as “Donald J. Trump” or “D. Trump.”
“At all times relevant to this lawsuit, Donald J. Trump was a private citizen,” he wrote in another footnote. “As a result, the Court will refer to him as such in this decision. In doing so, the Court means no disrespect to him or to the esteemed position he now holds.”