Club Owners Face Legal Threats for Allegedly Giving Discounts to Beautiful Women.

Pity the poor health club owners in California. More and more, it seems, their attempts to upsell their services are being met with threatened legal action by members of the community or even club members themselves.

Consumers and their advocates in California are aided and abetted by state legislators who have reserved some pretty harsh language for health club owners. Consider the Contracts for Health Studio Services Act (title 1812.80 of the civil code)-which, in the words of attorney David Vendler of Los Angeles firm Morris, Polich & Purdy, "basically starts with the premise that health club operators are scum. I'm not overstating the case."

Indeed, the act charges that "a substantial number of contracts for health studio services" have revealed fraudulent sales practices and business finance methods. The act's purpose, it goes on to say, "is to safeguard the public against fraud, deceit, imposition and financial hardships, and to foster and encourage competition, fair dealing and prosperity in the field of health studio services by prohibiting or restricting false or misleading advertising, onerous contract terms, harmful financial practices, and other unfair, dishonest, deceptive, destructive, unscrupulous, fraudulent, and discriminatory practices by which the public has been injured in connection with contracts for health studio services."

Yet, it is almost certainly true that many of the practices for which club owners have been sued were never intended to defraud anyone. For example, Vendler won a settlement last year for a group of members of glitzy Sports Club/L.A. who objected to the club's unadvertised discounts it apparently gave to certain classes of people as a way of boosting the club's profile.

"The allegations were that they were giving discounted memberships to beautiful girls," Vendler says. Tipped off A male member whose girlfriend received a substantial discount when she joined, Vendler found in depositions that "certain people, like Tyra Banks, got in for free, and that club management had so-called 'relationships' with modeling agencies. While they had discounts for corporate groups, for example, the modeling discounts were deeper. So it was clear where they were going with it."

Another spate of recent lawsuits has targeted certain "VIP" membership perks that many club owners probably do not realize could be viewed as illegal. An example is the "women only" workout room, which a number of clubs have instituted at the request of female members uncomfortable in a coed workout environment and who, in some cases, are willing to pay a premium for the option. Several successful lawsuits have attacked this sort of arrangement utilizing California's Unruh Civil Rights Act, a 1959 law that prohibits discrimination in places of public accommodation. In a similar vein, clubs with standard gang showers have been sued for offering women (but not men) the option of separate shower stalls for an additional $149 fee.

Settlements of the communal-vs.-private-shower cases could end up costing clubs a lot of money, since extensive renovations could be necessary to include both types of shower arrangements for both sexes. In the case of women-only workout rooms, many clubs now offer the perk but don't expressly forbid male members from entering the space. Ken Lipton, a Los Angeles attorney, has litigated several cases dealing with this practice and says his firm has tried to reverse the trend. "They put up signs that say, 'Women Preferred, but Men Welcome,'" Lipton says. "We want those signs down, because even though guys are allowed to come in there, there's obviously a chilling effect."

Adds Vendler, "Clubs are changing their policies from 'women only' to 'women preferred,' but you can draw your own conclusions. Guys can go in, but presumably the women stare at them, intimidate them, until they leave."