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Bringing Women Up To Par At Maryland Country Clubs

By Tyi Davis Anderson, The Daily Record

It is the kind of painting you would expect to see at a gentleman’s club-the painting of a full length nude woman laying on her side propped up on one elbow exposing a breast while looking seductively over her shoulder. But the Hall of Fame Lounge is no gentleman’s club. Instead it is part of the Manor Country Club in Rockville. The painting is just one way the club’s male members mark their territory to tell the few female members and guests that they are unwanted and unwelcome there.

The painting, a symptom of the sex discrimination that exists at Manor Country Club, is nothing new or surprising to Linda Hitt Thatcher. Thatcher, managing partner of Thatcher Law Firm, LLC, in Landover, Maryland and a defender of women’s rights on the green, has successfully represented several female plaintiffs in lawsuits against Maryland country clubs. In her latest assault against gender discrimination at country clubs, Thatcher got the nude painting in the Hall of Fame Lounge removed based on a complaint she filed on behalf of Betty Flaa against Manor. Flaa, a retired school teacher, filed a complaint against the country club after she was abruptly and publicly ordered to leave the golf course because she was not a full club member with access to restricted tee times. Although Flaa’s husband was a full member at the time of the expulsion, the club denied Flaa, as a spouse, the right to enjoy the same club benefits as her husband. The disparity in club benefits based upon membership status resulted from Manor’s application process.

According to Manor’s application policy, only one person per household is allowed to become a member of the club. In some instances where married couples apply for membership, the club automatically designated the husband to be the club member and relegated the wife to “spouse” status. Only actual club members have the right to enjoy restricted tee times, vote and serve on the club’s board of directors, denying spouses, who are virtually all women, the opportunity to enjoy the same rights. Despite this unequal opportunity, spouses are “held jointly and severally liable for all club dues, housing charges, initiation fees, assessments and other fees.”

Although this policy has since become gender neutral as a result of Flaa’s complaint, Thatcher insists that not much has changed and that the disparate impact on women still exists at Manor. Issues regarding the right to vote and membership to the board of directors remain. Women with full memberships, a total of 18 out of Manor’s 800 full members, still cannot truly enjoy privileges the club reserves for men. There is also the matter of the club’s hostile environment towards women. Thatcher points to one instance were a woman resigned her full membership at Manor because, in addition to the hostile environment, the club’s golf pro was unable to team her up with male members for foursomes because of her gender.

For some observers, defending the rights of “wealthy” women to gain access to restricted tee times, voting and membership privileges at country clubs seems insignificant considering the fact that many of these women are not obligated to belong to any club. But, according to Thatcher, gender discrimination cases against country clubs are not just about tee times. “These cases are not just about tee times but about providing fundamental equal rights, such as the right to vote, to women.”

That gender discrimination still exists at country clubs at a time when we are about to embark upon a new millennium is both surprising and disappointing. Even more disappointing is the fact that many educated and professional members of the country clubs who favor discriminatory club policies include members of the legal profession. “Although many of the members of these clubs are judges, lawyers, doctors, and CEOs who recognize that they have to abide by anti-discrimination laws at work, when they are at the club they treat it as their own personal playground,” says Thatcher.

To combat discrimination at country clubs, Thatcher urges women not to sit idly by complaining about it but to take action against it. “Women who whine about gender discrimination or without taking action or who fail to see the importance of speaking up for women’s rights are their own worst enemy.” When it comes to taking action against country clubs, older women have taken the lead of addressing the issue head on. “Most older women have put up with taking discrimination for most of their lives. They reach an age where they get the courage to speak up because they get tired of discrimination. They stop whining about it and hire a lawyer to get results since the clubs will not respond without the threat of a lawsuit,” says Thatcher of her clients.

For many country clubs, a discrimination suit can threaten the very financial viability of a club. According to Thatcher, 28 country clubs in Maryland receive tax breaks from the state for maintaining large open areas of green space. The tax breaks, which can range anywhere from $800,000 to one million dollars annually, are offered to country clubs on the condition that the clubs adhere to anti-discrimination laws. Clubs accused of failing to adhere to anti-discrimination laws, such as Manor, risk losing this break. A decision from the Maryland Attorney General’s Office, Department of Assessments and Taxation regarding whether Manor will loose its tax break based upon the Flaa complaint is expected to be issued sometime in the very near future. Despite the incredible tax incentive, not all country clubs are willing to exchange their bigotry for the significant savings. In 1989, the Burning Tree Country Club in Bethesda opted to forgo its tax break in order to remain a male-only club.

Discrimination lawsuits can also threaten country clubs that are deemed to be “places of public accommodation.” As a place of public accommodation, a club is obligated to uphold the anti-discrimination laws. Thatcher notes that if a club allows outside events to take place on its premises or offer services to the public for a fee such as golf lessons, it cannot be considered a “private” club. In order to qualify as “distinctly private,” a club must not allow the public access to its facilities or services. Thus, all club facilities and services must be for the exclusive use of its members. Since Manor permits the public to purchase homes on its golf course and offers tennis lessons and court time to the public, the Maryland Human Relations Commission found the club to be a place of public accommodation. This was the first and most important finding made by the Commission based upon its investigation of the allegations of discrimination in the Flaa complaint.

After a 10-day trial with over 35 witnesses testifying, the hearing examiner for the Commission also found that for at least 20 years, the Manor Country Club tolerated “severe and pervasive harassment of women” on its golf course and in its lounge and that the club did little to dissuade male members and employees who “intimidated, ridiculed and insulted” female members and guests and wives of male members. In reference to Flaa specifically, the Commission found that Flaa was “exposed to a hostile environment towards women and was dealt with more harshly than men in the application of rules with respect to use of the club’s facilities, services and activities” in violation of the Montgomery County Code.

As a result of these findings, the hearing examiner recommended,
inter alia, that Manor cease and desist from all activities and conduct that discriminate against women; establish and publish a written formal policy against sexual harassment and the hostile treatment of women in the use of any club facilities or services; remove the painting of the nude women from the Hall of Fame to another location, and provide a confidential and unbiased procedure for filing and adjudicating club complaints. The last recommendation was made to protect club members who file complaints with the Attorney General and Human Relations Commission from hostile treatment. In the probable event that these recommendations are accepted by the Public Accommodations Panel, Manor will be responsible for making all of the recommended changes and awarding Flaa $1,000, the maximum amount in damages, for the humiliation and embarrassment she suffered; $120,481.00 in attorney fees and $4,282.31 in other expenses.

According to Thatcher, a significant number of Manor club members did not want the Flaa matter to be resolved in this fashion. These members pleaded with Manor’s board of directors to settle the case by voluntarily making the necessary changes following the example set in the Woodmore Country Club case.

“Woodmore did the right thing, it set the example that other clubs, such as Manor, should follow. The message in the Woodmore case to all country clubs is that if they do not want a lawsuit, they should start to review their policies now and make the necessary changes,” says Thatcher. Woodmore not only made the right legal, moral and ethical decision, but it also made the right business decision. As a result of Woodmore’s decision, the club was selected to host the Maryland Women’s Bar Association first annual golf tournament, an event that Thatcher helped sponsor.

When looking to join a country club, Thatcher advises women to select a club that gives women access to restricted tee times, voting rights and membership to the club’s board of directors. For married women, this means they should look for clubs that offers joint spousal membership that give both spouses equal rights. Thatcher strongly urges women considering joining a country club not to patronize a club that discriminates. She encourages women with full memberships in their own right to use their memberships to make important changes that will benefit women and to become members of board of directors.

When asked about the success that she has experienced pursuing women’s rights, Thatcher says she attributes her success to her life-long passion of defending those who cannot defend themselves. Early on as a child, she stuck up for her girlfriends on the playground at school who could not find the courage to defend themselves. Later in college, she fought against the racial discrimination that existed in her sorority. Now as an adult, she is fighting for women’s rights. “Helping those who cannot help themselves is what gets me out of bed in the morning,” says Thatcher.

According to Thatcher, identifying passion is the key to success. “You must identify what makes you tick, whether it is staying at home with your children, working or practicing in a particular area of the law. Think about what you want to do and set a goal. Then put yourself in an environment that will make you shine. If you are practicing at a law firm or an area of law where you feel as if you cannot breathe, get out! Do not simply sit still and whine about it. Network and find out what others are doing. Become active in the WBA. If you do what you have a passion for, things will fall into place.”

Things have certainly fallen into place for Thatcher, who in 1994 started her own law firm, Thatcher Law Firm, LLC, to take on only those cases for which she has a passion. Following graduation from law school, Thatcher clerked for a federal judge in Maryland. She then joined the international law firm of Graham as an associate, where she practiced employment law on the management side. After having two sons, Thatcher became an associate and later a partner with the then 10-attorney law firm of Greenan, Walker, Trainor & Billman, in Greenbelt, Maryland, to be closer to home. As a wife and mother of two school age boys, John Michael and Luke, Thatcher says that the decision to start her own firm was both difficult and easy. “It is easy to get trapped in a job because of the salary.” However, with the help of her supportive husband David, an electrical engineer, Thatcher was able to strike out on her own while balancing her career and family life. She now has some control over her life and work decisions, and is able to do what she does best.