Like many who have been stunned by the meteoric rise of GOP front-runner Donald Trump, a federal judge on Thursday voiced the same sentiment — confusion — about a lawsuit pitting the part-time Palm Beach millionaire against members of Trump National Golf Club in Jupiter.
“I’m trying to understand what we’re really fighting about,” U.S. District Judge Kenneth Marra told warring attorneys during the roughly two-hour hearing.
While they didn’t mention the amount Thursday, attorneys representing roughly 60 members of the club in the long-running class-action lawsuit have said at least $6 million is at stake.
That is the minimum they claim Trump owes their clients for changing the membership rules after he plunked down $5 million for the ailing club, knowing it had $41 million in liabilities because of money it owed members in what were supposed to be refundable deposits. Attorney Mark Fistos said his clients — upset by the rule changes and blocked from using the club — want their hefty deposits back now.
“Clearly Trump has changed the whole policy and plan,” Fistos said of what is fueling the breach of contract litigation.
Attorneys representing Trump, who asked Marra to throw out the lawsuit, countered that the members will get their money in due time. They simply have to wait until new members join before getting back deposits, which range from $35,000 to $210,000. The rules forcing members to play a waiting game were in place when Trump bought the club in December 2012 from the Ritz-Carlton Golf Club & Spa, which had been losing as much as $4.2 million annually trying to keep it afloat.
“They don’t want to wait any longer, so they filed this lawsuit,” said Miami attorney Herman Russomanno III, who represents the club. The lawsuit is simply a way to jump to the front of what has always been a very long line, he said.
The club, in a gated community off Donald Ross Road near Alternate A1A, was catapulted into the national spotlight this month when Trump showcased it by staging one of his political press conferences there. Standing in the ballroom of the club’s ornate clubhouse, he displayed Trump Steaks, Trump magazine, Trump water and other Trump products in an effort to bolster his claim of business savvy against his Republican opponents’ attacks that many of his ventures were failures.
After the press conference, Michelle Fields, a reporter for the conservative Breitbart News, claimed she was manhandled by Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski at the event, an accusation he denied. Jupiter police are investigating the claim.
The hearing on the lawsuit featured a stunning array of legal terms and contradictory interpretations of them. Attorneys disagreed, for instance, about a “legacy addendum,” what constitutes a “breach,” and “terminability.”
Even the plain language of Trump was disputed. In a throwback to his famous “You’re fired!” catchphrase of his TV show, “The Apprentice,” he said in a 2012 letter to members that if they didn’t like his new rules, “you’re out.”
Fistos said his clients believed what they read. They were further convinced when they were denied entry to the club. Trump’s behavior means he breached their membership contracts, which makes them entitled to refunds immediately, Fistos said.
Russomanno attempted to walk back Trump’s “you’re out” comment. Instead of cancelling memberships, Trump’s son, Eric, who oversees the club, has negotiated with other members, he said.
Further, he said, Fistos’ clients were preventing from using the club because they hadn’t paid their dues. In court papers, he said some owed as much as $81,000. It has long been a rule that if you don’t pay, you can’t play, he said.
But, again, disagreement erupted. Fistos said his clients stopped paying their dues because they couldn’t use the club.
Marra, who quizzed both sides rigorously, promised a ruling soon.
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