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Shawn Vestal: Spokane Country Club could have avoided legal saga by treating members equally

Tue., Oct. 20, 2015, 1:04 p.m.

The Spokane Country Club went down fighting.

But it probably didn’t need to go down at all. The club’s drawn-out legal battle to preserve a tradition of charging women full price for second-class membership was a legal loser, and the club went broke clinging to it.

Meanwhile, the four women who challenged the tradition – and then endured six years of what their attorney termed a “vicious backlash” – are still standing, ready to collect their judgments and see the club transformed by its new owners, the Kalispel Tribe.

The club’s leadership “literally decided to exhaust the assets of the club, instead of giving in to the concept that, if you have women owners they deserve the same treatment as men owners,” said Mary Schultz, who represented the four women. “They literally drove the club into insolvency over that.”

The extraordinary six-year legal battle drew near an end last week when a bankruptcy judge signed off on the purchase of the club by the Kalispels. The $3 million sale price will allow the club to settle its debts and pay its legal judgments.

The tribe plans to wrap the new club into its Northern Quest entertainment enterprise and offer Spokane Country Club members preferential status.

Schultz said a significant reason her clients signed off on the settlement was that the Kalispel Tribe intends to treat men and women members equally.

“They made it very clear that if they were the purchaser they would run that course in a manner that would be non-discriminatory,” Schultz said.

Many of the details of how the club will move forward remain unknown as the purchase moves toward the final closing, said Lorraine Parlange, attorney for the Kalispels. But she said the tribe’s intention is to be “welcoming to everybody.”

“That is just how the tribe operates,” she said.

The attorney who represented the club in bankruptcy court, Barry Davidson, said he viewed the settlement as a chance for the members to continue to call the course home.

Davidson said the assets purchased by the tribe include the club’s name. He emphasized that the settlement – rather than marking an end for the club – allows it to move forward as one of the oldest golf clubs in the region with a long history and committed members.

“This is a passage for the Spokane Country Club and its members,” he said. “I do think it is important to look past the controversy that has accompanied this litigation and look forward to the operation by the Kalispel Tribe of the club for a good long time to come.”

The purchase will allow the club to discharge debts and judgments, including nearly $2 million in judgments and legal fees arising from the lawsuit filed in 2009 by four women who were members at the time: Drusilla Hieber, Laura Skaer, Nancy Van Noy and Tracy Christensen.

The women alleged that the club operated something like a separate-but-equal memberships system for men and women, charging them the same membership dues but providing much different level of services. In addition, the lawsuit alleged, men in the club subjected them to boorish, crude behavior. The club defended the gender-based tournaments and preferential treatment – ranging from tee times to a “men’s grill” where the simple, momentary presence of a woman angered certain members – as part of its rich tradition. The club, founded in 1898, is one of the oldest in the region.

Though golf courses have long divided events by gender, Schultz cast the case in civil-rights terms: The club was selling equal shares of ownership, and it could not charge the same dues to everyone while giving preference to men.

Fixing her clients’ complaint would have been simple, she said: “Just treat them like owners.”

The response of the club’s leadership “wasn’t just no. There was this really vicious backlash that went on for six years. Their feeling was, I guess, that women’s money wasn’t the same as men’s.”

A jury unanimously disagreed in 2013, awarding the women a total of more than $500,000 in damages. That same year, the club declared bankruptcy. Still, the club resisted – a year after the verdict, Judge Linda Tompkins put the club under strict court oversight because, while it had made some changes, it had not abandoned its “shifting and discriminatory criteria” for regular and tournament play that was denying the plaintiffs equal access to the course.

The case was remarkable in many ways, not the least of which were some of the Paleolithic attitudes expressed by some male members of the club. In an example from court filings, one man wrote a letter of complaint to the club’s board because Christensen had entered the men’s grill to talk to her husband in 2007. She was “rude and defiant,” the man said. Her husband “took no action,” the man said. “All were angry and disgusted,” the man said.

Imagine.

“These are really courageous women,” Schultz said. “They have stood in the wind for six years … They have hung in there, and they made sure they brought this home.”

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or shawnv@spokesman.com. Follow him on Twitter at @vestal13.



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