Lawsuits abound at Fountains Country Club in Lake Worth

The Fountains Country Club in suburban Lake Worth may be struggling to keep members, but it’s overflowing with lawsuits.

The club has filed dozens of lawsuits against residents who are fighting mandatory club dues. About 25 lawsuits were filed in the past few weeks alone.

Now one resident has teed up her own lawsuit against the club.

» RELATED: Fountains club OKs $17 million land sale to GL Homes

Susan Shea was sued by the country club back in 2013 for not paying membership dues after she bought a condo in the Fountains community in 2012.

The lawsuit was launched even though her community was one of several that had voted to exit the club’s mandatory membership.

After nearly three years of litigation, a judge in January dismissed the club’s complaint against Shea.

But Shea didn’t let the matter lie.

In June, she sued the club for malicious prosecution.

In her lawsuit, Shea said she did her homework in 2012 when she bought her condo, and she verified she was not obligated to join the club and pay dues.

But the club sued her anyway for not joining, even though it knew her condo association had just voted to exit mandatory club membership, she alleged in her complaint.

“The club did not bring the action against Shea to pursue a legitimate claim against her,” her lawsuit said. “Rather, it filed a meritless action to scare other new buyers and sellers in the Fountains Community into believing that if the buyer did not join the country club, he or she would be subject to litigation.”

Not only did the club lack probable cause to file the action against Shea, it “acted with malice,” Shea’s lawsuit said.

Shea’s lawyer said his client decided to take a stand against the club.

“What happened to Susan is one of several different methods the club has used to try to squeeze money from folks who really do not owe it,” said Shea’s lawyer, Cole Fitzgerald, of West Palm Beach. “Susan feels strongly enough about this to do something about it.”

Fountains Country Club President Paul Napieralski said he couldn’t comment on any lawsuit in particular, such as the Shea case.

The legal face-off comes as the Fountains looks to maintain its country club at a time when members are aging and interest in golf and country club memberships is declining. The trend is nationwide.

The Fountains has been working to boost its fortunes. In June, the club voted to sell part of one of its three golf course to a real estate developer to build houses and apartments. GL Homes, of Sunrise, agreed to pay $17 million to the club, which will use the money for capital improvements.

The Fountains also isn’t shy about suing residents who don’t pay club dues.

Resident Brian McDowell, for instance, is being sued for resigning his membership and not paying dues, even though he says in court papers he joined as a non-equity “community” member and is not required to “sell” his membership to someone else in order to resign. The club disagrees and says he is.

A judge’s ruling is expected any day, said McDowell’s lawyer, James Burnham, of West Palm Beach.

Many country clubs sue members who don’t pay dues, of course, but residents say the club’s hardball tactics are raising eyebrows.

That’s because of the volume of lawsuits and the fact that some of the cases are against old or sick members, said one resident, who requested anonymity for fear of reprisal.

But Napieralski, the club president, said the club has measures by which people can apply for a leave of absence from paying dues, or even a hardship case to cease having to pay dues.

They have to apply to be considered, “and we approve a good percentage every month,” Napieralski said.

The two dozen lawsuits recently filed are against members whom Napieralski said have “illegally” resigned from the club. The rule is a club member can’t resign until he or she finds someone willing to buy the membership, he said.

The club is taking this position even though a Palm Beach County circuit judge issued a judgment in January, finding in favor of several Fountains communities that voted to repeal mandatory membership for its homeowners.

In 2013, these communities sued the club over the issue of mandatory club members. Earlier this year, Judge Edward Artau ruled that the communities had the right to repeal mandatory club membership, just as they had had the right to vote in favor of mandatory club membership a decade before.

The club is appealing Artau’s judgment to the 4th District Court of Appeal.

“We believe the court’s repealing mandatory membership was unfounded,” Napieralski said.

The lawsuits have created a lot of bad blood in the 865-acre community of condos and single-family homes. The Fountains, on the west side of Jog Road, stretches from Lake Worth Road on the north to Lantana Road on the south.

Some residents say that those who buck the country club are subject to retaliatory measures, including being ousted from card games or disinvited to dinner parties. “People are afraid,” one resident said. “They take a stand and get kicked around for it.”

Napieralski said he wishes lawsuits weren’t necessary, but he said he has a fiduciary duty to preserve the club for its members.

Napieralski said the club has roughly 1,000 members, of which 70 percent are equity members. Those who complain about the club and its membership issues are a “small minority.”

Jack McCabe, chief executive of Deerfield Beach-based McCabe Research and Consulting, said the club has good intentions but bad form.

“I understand what this guy’s saying, but in this case, they’ve got a judgment against them,”McCabe said. “If they’re pursuing an appeal, they should stop pursuing these club fees until the appeal has been resolved.”

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