Women Blasting Out of Trap With Sex-Discrimination Suit

Two Maryland Country Clubs Targeted By Complaints Saying Tax Breaks Should Come with Responsibility to Open 'Last Bastion' to Females

By Catherine Brennan
The Daily Record, 12/2/95

Some say it's a matter of discrimination. Some say it's a frivolous claim over nothing more important than tee times on a country club golf course.

For Greenbelt attorney Linda Hitt Thatcher and the female country club members she represents, the issue is clearly one of disparate treatment based on sex.

The country clubs targeted thus far-particularly the well-heeled Bethesda Country Club-are up in arms, saying that their policies are sex-neutral.

The complaints Thatcher has filed with the Attorney General's Department of Assessments and Taxation are based on the state's willingness to give country clubs a tax break in exchange for adopting non-discrimination policies.

Maryland's Tax-Property Article permits a "qualifying country club to enter into agreement with the Maryland Department of Assessments and Taxation to obtain preferential tax treatment of country club land, on the condition that [it] not discriminate on the basis of race, color, creed, sex or national origin in granting membership or guest privileges."

And it is this tax break that allows Thatcher and other women to challenge the allegedly discriminatory policies of some of Maryland's most posh country clubs.

"Country clubs are the last bastion of male domination that women have to penetrate in order to have equal economic opportunities," says Thatcher, soon to be a partner in the office of Greenan Walker Trainor & Billman.

"When they're working, club members-who are CEOs, partners in firms, and other business leaders-abide by the law and treat women equally, but on their own time, they want to preserve the status quo of unequal treatment," she says.

The three complaints filed thus far-against Woodmore Country Club in Mitchellville, Manor Country Club in Rockville, and Bethesda-have brought Woodmore to change it policies.

The other two flatly deny they are guilty of anything.

Teeing Off

Thatcher struggles against the misconception that the complaints are only about tee times.

"It's a power struggle: women want a voice, they want to serve on the board, they want to vote," she says.

Golf Course Complaints

x Woodmore Country Club: Filed June 14, 1994. Resolved October 23, 1995.

x Manor Country Club: Filed February 22, 1995. Pending.

x Bethesda Country Club: Filed September 12, 1995. Pending.

She says it does not matter if the clubs do not intend to discriminate, as the women complaining of discrimination are not legally required to make a showing of intent.

"Membership policies that are facially neutral-meaning they seem to allow equal opportunity to women and men-can have a disparate adverse impact on women," Thatcher says.

Charges like those have induced some clubs to say their policies compare favorably with other clubs' practices.

Bethesda's attorney, Harry Lerch, has pointed his finger at both Woodmore and Manor as clubs enforcing discriminatory policies.

According to Thatcher's complaint against Manor, only one person per family can be listed as the full member-and the membership application listed that "full member" as the husband of the family up until 1995.

Despite the lack of privileges designated to the "wife" of a Manor member, she remains liable for all debts incurred by her member husband.

A similar scheme at Woodmore was recently changed by a consent agreement negotiated by the Attorney General's Office.

The Woodmore Consent Agreement

Case: Nicholson et al. v. The Country Club at Woodmore et al. Filed with the office of the Attorney General on June 14, 1994. Consent agreement entered into Oct. 23, 1995 by Assistant Attorney General David M. Lyon and Woodmore.

Issue: Did the policies of the Woodmore Country Club have the effect of discriminating against women?

Settlement: Without specifically admitting it practiced sex discrimination, Woodmore modified its membership schedule to minimize disproportionate discriminatory impact on women.

RecordFax #5-1023-90 (10 pages)

"One of the problems at the other clubs is the spouses are responsible for the debts of members-at Woodmore, both spouses had to buy stock for membership at Manor, resident members buy property around the club for which their spouses can be held liable," says Lerch.

"That problem does not exist at Bethesda-spouses of members would never be held accountable for a member-spouse's debts," he adds.

"The fact that the membership fee is paid with a check from a joint account is irrelevant," says Lerch, "we don't decide who the members are based on method of payment. We rely on the application that the couple fills out."

The Rules

For Thatcher and her clients, the controversy over which spouse would be represented in a club seems to have an obvious, almost simplistic, solution.

"What is the big deal with allowing the wife to have the same rights and privileges to vote, to serve on the board, and to speak at meetings?" Thatcher asks.

The big deal, says Lerch, is that these women are trying to get the benefits of membership without paying for it.

"At Bethesda, membership is in one person's name and it is between the spouses who becomes the member," Lerch says, "It's completely gender-blind."

In addition to representing Bethesda in the complaint, Lerch is a six-year Charter Member who serves the club's board of directors and chaired the club's legal committee.

Lerch is not the only attorney involved with the discrimination complaints who is also connected with a country club.

Thatcher herself began the campaign against country clubs after she was approached by fellow club members at Woodmore.

"They knew I was an attorney who worked in the area of employment discrimination-so the connections developed at the club paid off," she says.

Some question the legitimacy of the tax break arrangement as a way to promote non-discrimination.

When the tax break as originally adopted in the 1960's, legislators were unconcerned with discrimination, and instead justified the gift as a way to protect the environment and preserve open spaces.

It seems dubious that the tax break for golf courses promotes environmental health.

"Having golf courses in a country club setting is very expensive. The tax burden creates an economic strain on those who would purchase land surrounding the clubs, and the tax break is a way of reducing the tax burden and promoting development," says David M. Lyon, the Assistant Attorney General in the Dept. of Assessments and Taxation who brokered the Woodmore settlement.

Thatcher herself does not question the tax break.

"Probably these clubs should get tax breaks because you're not having condos and homes," she says.

Professor Robert Percival, Director of UMBA's Environmental Law Program, disagrees.

"Golf courses contribute to pollution through the runoff resulting from mowing fairways and greens, which reduces the absorptive capacity of the soil. The use of fertilizers and pesticides on the course is also harmful to the environment," he says.

"If one was trying to preserve the environment, golf courses would not be top priority, and it seems relatively questionable to give tax breaks if the real goal is to preserve the environment," Percival adds.

Scorecard

While the environment rationale for the tax break appears suspect, one thing is clear-at all three clubs, members with access to all club perks are overwhelmingly male.

Before the Attorney General's intervention at Woodmore, "associate" members, almost all of whom are female, could not vote. Of the club's 508 full members, only seven were women, while 250 women were "associate" members.

Although Thatcher was ultimately victorious in the Woodmore complaint when the club agreed to allow "associate" members to become "joint" members with all rights granted full members, such legal vindication does not necessarily translate into actual acceptance.

Shortly after the complaint was filed, the club published an article in its newsletter scoffing at the women's concerns. It said that "barbecuing is the last bastion of male testosterone freedom."

The green ceiling promoted a different response from Towson businesswoman Jacquie Burkhardt.

Burkhardt, President of Executive Women's Golf League, agrees that "there is a great need for women to have access to the courses, and the EWG gets women the opportunity to play by removing the green ceiling and getting around the 'good old boy' intimidation factor."

EWG hold clinics for women to learn the etiquette of the game, a necessary service, says Burkhardt. She points out that the reality of business dealings on the golf course makes women's' access tot he court a legitimate goal.

"You don't do business on the course, but you bond. After the golf is over you have a camaraderie there so you can sit down and close a deal.

"You see how someone reacts to adversity when they hit the ball into a sand trap and maybe you'll decide you don't want to do business with someone who can't handle the pressure," she says.

Dissenting voices

Burkhardt is critical of the complaints filed by Thatcher with the Attorney General's Office.

"You can accomplish the same goal through EWG, which has the backing of the Professional Golf Association and U.S. Golf Association. Nationally, EWG has 12,000 members who in combination can exert a lot of power to end discrimination," Burkhardt says.

"I've never been one to be where I'm not wanted-I'd rather that the club lose out on the money I'd bring and the contacts," she says, "It is to the clubs benefit to allow women to play, a fact they will learn if we utilize our economic power."

For Thatcher and her clients, there is more at stake than just improving the ability of women to cinch business deals.

"Those things are obviously important," Thatcher says, "but it's also about plain old discrimination-especially with regards to the fact that many of these women aren't allowed to vote on club business."

At Bethesda, only charter members have voting rights, can hold elective office and enjoy full golfing privileges.

Professor Nijole Benokraitis at UB's Gordon College of Liberal Arts perceives the issues as one of class as well as sex.

"Club members-especially since many feel assaulted by affirmative action and other programs-want their clubs to stay exclusive," she says.

"The preservation of their social class requires limiting access to undesirable groups, including women, African-Americans and others," she adds, "and one of the last holdouts is to only play with people like them-white, male, and well-off."

Benokraitis is pleased with the complaints against the clubs. "Women should sue and complain, especially women who can afford these clubs," she says.

"At the symbolic level, the more open avenues for advancement appear, the more women will keep fighting," she adds.

"Country club membership gives women a chance to impress clients. From a practical business sense, these lawsuits are important because these are women who want the same amenities as men and have the resources to get them," she says.

Golf matters

Benokraitis is also critical of allegation that these complaints concern tee times, a trivial matter.

"These women are combating the very real sense of exclusion that can come from some clubs' policies, which is not trivial," she says.

In any event, Benokraitis notes, even if the complaints only concerned the ability to golf at any time to let off steam and network, they should be taken seriously.

"These concerns are not questioned when raised by and for men-why shouldn't they be equally as important for women?" she asks.

That sense of exclusion may not be intentional at Bethesda, says Thatcher, but it appears predictable based on how one becomes a charter member.

For charter membership, one must be nominated by two charter members. The application is then reviewed by the Board.

Because this process depends almost entirely on male input, says Thatcher, "women, historically disenfranchised in the club's operations and given limited access to members who might nominate them for charter membership, remain stymied in their efforts to enjoy full membership."

Of Bethesda's 500 charter members, 46 are women and 50 percent of those women obtained that status through their deceased husbands.

Attorney Profile

Name: Linda Hitt Thatcher, Esq.

Background: Virginia native; J.D., St. Mary's University Law School,

San Antonio, Texas.

Practice: Greenan Walker Trainor & Billman in Greenbelt, Md.

Admitted Maryland and D.C. Bars.

Hometown: Mitchellville, Md., where she lives with husband David and two sons.

The majority of the remaining women are listed as spouses of their charter husbands-who have no voting rights, cannot hold elective office and do not have full golfing privileges.

Then women allege that the club does not allow for joint club membership, and many couples have had their requests "flatly denied."

The club's policies perpetuate the status quo of gender distinction, "with over 90 percent of those who have the right to vote and access to weekend morning tee times being men, and over 90 percent of those denied these privileges being women," says Thatcher.

"Starting tee times for 'spouses' [women], begin 11:30 a.m. provided that 'all member groups have been accommodated and all group comprising members and spouses have been accommodated'," Thatcher says.

"That isn't a matter of prohibition, but of priority," Lerch says, "if we let everyone play golf Saturday morning, the course would get pretty crowded."

Thatcher is dismayed by that flimsy rationale-which has been argued by all three clubs defending their policies.

"It's a complete misperception," Thatcher says, "At Woodmore, many women have shifted to a new membership category that allows them to play whenever they want, and there has been no deluge of people on the course."

"Even if there was, fear of overcrowding cannot be used as an excuse for discrimination," she adds.

Mulligans

Thatcher's complaint is not the first to accuse Bethesda of discrimination.

After the Attorney General renewed the club's taxation agreement in 1990, a 1992 Washington Post article named Bethesda as one of several Maryland clubs having policies that adversely affect women.

That led to another Attorney General investigation, and there was a finding of no bias. The Ladies' Professional Golf Association held their tournament here in 1992, and they would not have done that if we practiced discrimination, says Lerch.

While Bethesda is cooperating with the Attorney General's investigation, Thatcher questions the veracity of Bethesda's appreciation of the concerns of its female members.

In a letter addressed to Assistant Attorney General David Lyon dated September 22, 1995, Thomas A. Lerner, an attorney at Lerch's firm, criticized the women's actions, writing that they were seeking to get full Charter membership without having paid for it.

Lerner called it "an odd issue [with] which the Complainants have chosen to burden your office resources, and the public weal."

The Attorney General expects to rule on both Manor and Bethesda's tax exemption status next year.