WEST PALM BEACH —
A federal judge Friday is expected to give his final blessing to a $5.4 million settlement that will end a long-running lawsuit between President Donald Trump and members of Trump National Golf Club in Jupiter.
U.S. District Judge Kenneth Marra has already given a preliminary nod to the agreement, which was hashed out after Trump appealed his ruling that Trump had breached a contract with club members by barring them from using the club on Northlake Boulevard while refusing to refund their hefty deposits.
“The court finds that … the proposed class action settlement is fair, reasonable and adequate,” Marra wrote in February after reviewing a preliminary agreement between Trump’s lawyers and those representing club members.
Since then, the proposed settlement has been presented to 65 former club members who joined in the lawsuit. “Counsel received calls from more than a dozen class members expressing their strong support of the settlement,” wrote attorney Seth Lehrman, who is representing those who balked at rules Trump established after buying the club in 2012.
Under the terms of the settlement, Lehrman and other lawyers who represented club members would get $1.9 million and most of the remaining money would be divided among the members, Lehrman wrote.
The three club members who led the lawsuit — North Palm Beach computer engineer Norman Hirsch, Boston real estate developer Matthew Dwyer and Bain & Co. co-founder Ralph Willard — would each get an extra $2,000 for their efforts.
After Marra ruled in their favor in February 2017 and ordered Trump’s company to refund $4.8 million in deposit money and tacked on another $1 million in interest, Hirsch and Dwyer described the “wild ride” they had unwittingly embarked on.
“We begin by suing a major real estate developer, moving to a presidential candidate to president-elect and then, when the verdict came down, the president of the United States,” Dwyer said. “It’s been a bizarre journey.”
They declined comment on the looming settlement, saying they didn’t want to talk about it until it was approved. Attorneys for Trump and club members have also declined comment.
Trump purchased the financially troubled club from Ritz-Carlton Golf Club in Spa in 2012 for a bargain price of $5 million after agreeing he would accept responsibility for the $41 million Ritz-Carlton owed members in refundable deposits.
Shortly after taking over, he announced changes in the way those on the resignation list would be dealt with. Under Ritz, club members could continue to use the club until their memberships were purchased by new members.
Instead, Trump wrote: “If you choose to remain on the resignation list, you’re out.”
Club members who were on the resignation list said they were barred from using the club even though Trump refused to refund deposits that ranged from $41,000 to $210,000 and continued to bill them for annual dues that ranged from $6,000 to $20,000, depending on the type of membership they had.
After conducting a weeklong trial in 2016, Marra ruled that by refusing entry to those who had announced their intention to resign, Trump had revoked their memberships. Under the contract, Trump had 30 days to refund the deposits after members were barred. By not doing so, Trump “committed a material breach of the Membership Agreement,” he wrote.
Trump, then on the campaign trail, didn’t testify in person during the trial. Instead, a video tape of a deposition was played for Marra. But his son, Eric, who was in charge of the club, testified at length. The changes instituted by his father “made the club great again,” he testified.
Since Trump was elected, he has played golf at the club at least twice — with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, along with two-time U.S. Open winner Ernie Els, on Feb. 11, 2017, and with pro golfers Tiger Woods and Dustin Johnson on Nov. 24.
It was also gained notoriety during the 2016 campaign when a Breitbart news reporter accused Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski of manhandling her at an event there. Palm Beach County State Attorney Dave Aronberg declined to file charges.
By Jane Musgrave – Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
Posted: 7:00 a.m. Friday, April 20, 2018