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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Injunction against Spokane Country Club takes on deep-rooted gender discrimination

First, the Spokane Country Club was ordered to pay around a half-million dollars for discriminating against its women members.

Then, after spending hundreds of thousands of dollars defending the traditions by which it offered lesser services to women for the same price as the men, the club declared bankruptcy. Meanwhile, it continued to do what it had gotten in trouble for doing – hosting men’s-only events through a variety of creative workarounds, for example. This summer, the club simply put the men’s tournaments back on the schedule, court records say.

And so a judge has taken another extraordinary step in the extraordinary case of the four women who challenged tradition of their golf club. A judge has ordered the club to knock it off and put the club under strict, ongoing supervision, concluding that its management and leadership are refusing to abide by the law.

“Although major changes have been implemented post-verdict,” Spokane County Superior Court Judge Linda Tompkins wrote in a July 23 order, “the Club has not abandoned its discriminatory practices of excluding the Plaintiffs (from) significant opportunities for regular and tournament play on the course as an element of their fully paid membership.”

Tompkins made it clear that the failures were not simply in the past, but that “past and present Club leadership and management’s reliance on shifting and discriminatory criteria” forced her to put the club under court supervision, with the potential threat of contempt charges if they do not comply.

Mary Schultz, the attorney who represented the four member-owners who sued the club, said the order of injunctive relief was necessary because of the club’s “pervasive culture of gender distinction and discrimination.”

“The club merrily went on its way violating the law over the last year,” she said. “They would not adhere to the law before the verdict, and they would not adhere to the law after the verdict.”

The case is fascinating for many reasons, not the least of which is the fact that the practices at the club that were found to violate the law are routine and longstanding practices throughout the golf world. Men’s and women’s days, separate tournaments for the men and ladies, tee times set aside by gender – all are the norm at many, if not most, country clubs.

The Spokane Country Club case is driving long-standing golf-course practices into the realm of civil rights. Many people are sure to see it as excessive or overreaching. Club attorneys did not return calls seeking comment this week, but have argued in the past that the case threatens the ability of private organizations to run themselves by their own standards.

A key finding in this case was that the club is a “public accommodation,” subject to anti-discrimination law. The four plaintiffs – Drusilla Hieber, Laura Skaer, Nancy Van Noy and Tracy Christensen – argued that as shareholding members of the club, they were receiving a second-class level of service. The suit also brought to light a lot of allegations of a deeply ingrained culture of discrimination, ranging from crude behavior directed at the women to a petition drive asserting that men were the real victims of discrimination – sparked by Hieber’s apparently brazen decision to golf on a Wednesday even though it was men’s day.

In her order, Tompkins wrote that the different level of services included “gender segregated tournaments, entertainment, targeted tee times, dining times and facilities, awards and benefits, prominence and location of handicap postings and member meetings.”

After the jury ruled in the women’s favor last year and awarded around a half-million in damages, the club engaged in what Schultz calls “shenanigans” to skirt the law and continue the tournaments. In one case, she said, a tournament was reclassified as open to all members – but previous players had dibs on a capped number of tournament spots, and the previous players were all men.

“Whoops … there’s no more room,” Schultz said.

In another case, a member hosted a supposedly private tournament of his friends – all men – for which the club reimbursed him. This summer, according to Tompkins’ order, the club simply resumed holding gender-exclusive invitationals. Furthermore, some of the club’s members and board members have continued to act like foot-dragging boors, “engaging in vulgar and oppressive behavior” intended to humiliate the plaintiffs, the judge found.

The court’s oversight will be strict. The club will be required to post the notice of injunction on its website and send copies to members. It will be forced to create a new events schedule and to turn over board minutes. A hearing in November will be held to make sure it is complying.

Meanwhile, the club’s bankruptcy case moves onward. And – perhaps most surprising of all – the four plaintiffs continue to golf and go to the club. Schultz said it has been difficult for them, and they’ve been treated badly. So, having won on principle, why do they stay?

She says they love to golf, and they want to see their club get better – they are, after all, shareholders in the club. She said they hope to see new management and a new direction. When the club’s bankruptcy reorganization plan is presented this fall to the court, Schultz said she plans to “ask the court to take a look at liquidation” to put the club under new management.

The case has been watched closely by other golf clubs around the country, many of whom continue the very practices and traditions at issue here. Whether this case will be an outlier or the first step in a larger movement remains to be seen.

Schultz said she was recently in Great Falls where she tried to get a tee time one morning at a local country club.

“It was men’s day,” she said. “So I wasn’t able to play.”

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