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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Vestal: Case could impact country clubs across nation

Drusilla Hieber and Nancy Van Noy played golf on July 23, 2008.

Or, in Hieber’s words, they “had the audacity to play golf” on July 23, 2008.

It was, after all, a Wednesday – and at the Spokane Country Club, where Hieber and Van Noy are members, Wednesdays were men’s days.

“Shame on me,” Hieber said in a court deposition.

The duo’s brazen outing sparked a petition that was eventually signed by more than 90 members of the club. The petition argued that female members – 27 of them, out of some 350 members – were running roughshod over the rights of men.

That kind of thing, Hieber’s attorney argues, is why a court must step in and force the Spokane Country Club to “desegregate” its practices and culture. A jury already awarded four female members of the club more than half a million dollars in damages, finding that the club had discriminated against them by denying them full access to events and facilities while charging them the same as the men. Hieber and Van Noy were two plaintiffs, along with Laura Skaer and Tracy Christensen.

Now they’re asking for “injunctive relief” – a court-supervised forced march of change. Part of their argument is that the club’s members and board have retaliated and tried to intimidate them, including a lot of crude, aggressive, boorish behavior.

“The discrimination is continuing,” said Mary Schultz, the plaintiffs’ attorney. “They’ve not indicated at all that they intend to fix anything.”

The club has appealed the judgment, and the legal arguments will proceed. Meanwhile, every other country club in the city and state, presumably, is watching with bated breath, because the practices deemed discriminatory at Spokane Country Club are so commonplace: Men’s tournaments and tee times, women’s tournaments and tee times, men’s days and ladies’ days, etc.

“It’s been like that for 150 years or so,” said Tom Cade, spokesman for the Washington State Golf Association. “I’m sure clubs are looking at the case and following it very closely.”

The crucial issue is whether Spokane Country Club and similar organizations are private clubs or “public accommodations,” which must follow state laws against discrimination. In this case, Judge Linda Tompkins ruled that the club is a public accommodation that allows a certain amount of nonmember access and use.

The club’s attorney, C. Matthew Andersen, said that has potentially huge ramifications.

“The club has operated under the belief for quite a while that it is a private club and not a public accommodation,” he said. “If it’s not a private club, there probably aren’t any private clubs in the state of Washington.”

Andersen argues that the plaintiffs had access to the club’s golf course every day of the week, and that less than 20 percent of all course activity was limited based on gender. He emphasized many ways in which the plaintiffs did have access to club facilities and events.

Andersen also said club officials tried to accommodate the concerns of the female members while following the wishes of its majority. He disputes the claims of widespread retaliatory behavior.

“There are lots of sides to the stories,” he said. “This is not an ill-tempered defense.”

Schultz argues, and jurors apparently agreed, that the problem was larger than a few hours of preferential tee times.

“There was never a sign out there that said ‘Men’s Grill.’ It just was,” she said. “You found out when you stumbled across the invisible tape on the floor.

“You’ve got all of this invisible tape on the floor. … How do you fix that?”

The case began with Skaer. An excellent golfer, Skaer joined the club in 1999. She promptly crossed the invisible tape – playing in three consecutive tournaments that were tacitly understood to be men’s-only events. Within a year, the club president approached her and told her “that was not appropriate,” she said in a deposition.

“Members” tournaments were actually men’s tournaments. Furthermore, Wednesdays were “gentlemen’s use only” on the course, clubhouse, bar and grill, outside patio and other facilities. This was spelled out in a section of the club handbook titled “Traditions.” Ladies had exclusive tee times on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

Skaer began pressing the club leadership to change, arguing that as a full member, she was entitled to equal membership status.

The Board did make some adjustments along the way. In 2008, they scaled back the men’s-only tee times on Wednesday to 11 to 4. They stopped calling the men’s grill the men’s grill. This is the context in which the club’s men rallied to the defense of their own civil rights with their petition drive, spurred by Hieber and Van Noy’s audacious golfing.

It’s not too much to say the case could have nationwide reverberations. It’s been rolling along for four years, and it adds up to an enormous stack of paperwork at the Spokane County Courthouse. Part of it is Hieber’s deposition, when she describes her golf outing of 2008.

Toward the end of the same deposition, a discussion arose over some board members who had left to participate in a club tournament.

Andersen told Hieber, “As soon as we finish, you can go play golf.”

“I can’t,” she said. “I’m restricted.”

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