Long-running litigation between President Donald Trump and members of his golf club in Jupiter came to an anti-climatic end on Friday with both sides declaring victory when a federal judge tentatively signed off on a $5.4 million settlement agreement.
“The trial was a complete victory. The settlement was a complete victory,” said attorney Seth Lehrman, who represented 65 members of Trump National Golf Club in Jupiter who will divide the spoils of the agreement.
“The matter has been resolved,” said attorney Herman Russomanno III, who represented Trump and his companies in the litigation that began in 2013, shortly after Trump bought the club on Donald Ross Road. “An important element is there is no admission of liability on behalf of Trump.”
The only hiccup was procedural. U.S. District Judge Kenneth Marra couldn’t give a final nod to the settlement because Trump appealed Marra’s February 2017 ruling that Trump breached a contract with club members by barring them from using the club while refusing to refund their hefty deposits.
Once the 11th Circuit of Appeals receives Marra’s order, tentatively declaring the settlement “fair, reasonable and adequate,” the Atlanta-based court is expected to relinquish jurisdiction of the case. That will allow Marra to sign a final order, approving the settlement.
Lawyers get $1.9M, members get most of remaining money
The proposed settlement shaves roughly $300,000 off the amount Marra ordered Trump’s company to pay. Lehrman and other lawyers who represented club members would get $1.9 million and most of the remaining money would be divided among the 65 members who pursued Trump. Dozens of other members dropped out after Trump agreed to reduce their annual fees and let them use his Mar-A-Lago Club in Palm Beach and play at some of his other clubs in South Florida.
But the litigation isn’t over for Trump. The Ritz-Carlton Golf Club & Spa in Jupiter, which sold the financially-troubled club to Trump in 2012 for a bargain price of $5 million, is continuing to pursue Trump, claiming he failed to abide by the terms of the agreement. As part of the sale, Trump agreed he would accept responsibility for the $41 million Ritz-Carlton owed members in refundable deposits.
Ritz-Carlton is seeking as much as $1 million for dragging it into the litigation with club members over the refundable deposits. Russomanno said settlement talks with Ritz-Carlton attorneys are ongoing. “The numbers are still far apart,” he told Marra.
Three locals led the lawsuit
The three club members who led the lawsuit — North Palm Beach computer engineer Norman Hirsch, Boston real estate developer Matthew Dwyer and Bain & Co. co-founder Ralph Willard — were not in court on Friday when Marra tentatively approved the agreement.
Lehrman said the men, who will each get an extra $2,000 for leading the charge against Trump, wouldn’t comment until Marra has signed the final order.
After Marra ruled in their favor in February 2017, Hirsch and and Dwyer described the “wild ride” they had unwittingly embarked on.
“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,” Dwyer said. “It’s been a bizarre journey.”
They said they filed suit as a matter of principle. “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,” Hirsch said, summing up his motivations for filing suit.
When Trump took over the club
Shortly after taking over, Trump announced changes in the way those on the resignation list would be dealt with. Under Ritz rules, club members could continue to use the club until their memberships were purchased by new members.
Instead, Trump wrote: “If you choose to remain on the resignation list, you’re out.”
Club members who were on the resignation list said they were barred from using the club even though Trump refused to refund deposits that ranged from $41,000 to $210,000 and continued to bill them for annual dues that ranged from $6,000 to $20,000, depending on the type of membership they had.
After conducting a weeklong trial in 2016, Marra ruled that by refusing entry to those who had announced their intention to resign, Trump had revoked their memberships. Under the contract, Trump had 30 days to refund the deposits after members were barred. By not doing so, Trump “committed a material breach of the Membership Agreement,” he wrote.
Eric Trump said changes ‘made the club great again’
Trump, then on the campaign trail, didn’t testify in person during the trial. Instead, a video tape of a deposition was played for Marra. But his son, Eric, who was in charge of the club, testified at length. The changes instituted by his father “made the club great again,” he testified.
As president, Trump has played golf at the club at least twice — with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, along with pro golfer Ernie Els, on Feb. 11, 2017, and with pro golfers Tiger Woods and Dustin Johnson on Nov. 24. Els (Hobe Sound), Johnson (homes in Jupiter and North Palm Beach) and Woods (Jupiter Island) all live in the area.
Trump National Golf Club also gained notoriety during the 2016 campaign when a Breitbart news reporter accused Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski of manhandling her at an event there. Palm Beach County State Attorney Dave Aronberg declined to file charges.