Member Rules and Termination

When membership termination issues arise, owners would be advised to refer to state case law.

FITNESS FACILITIES are sometimes faced with the issue of terminating an individual's club membership for one or more rule violations. While facility duties in reference to a refund of prepaid dues and fees may be the subject of particular state statutory rules, there is some general guidance that can be provided by reference to state case law when membership termination issues arise. A look at these issues may be beneficial to facility owners and operators, but can never be a substitute for individualized legal advice.
Rules must be applied in a neutral, non-discriminatory fashion.

Membership contract

Facilities should always have a membership contract in place that complies with state statutory requirements. Frequently, such statutory provisions provide consumer protections for members as to the length of memberships, and refunds due to members in the event of facility closure or member job transfers, etc. Membership contracts should always specifically define what benefits are made available to members, and the rules and regulations of membership. Such rules should be subject to facility modification from time to time. Membership termination provisions must also be included within such contracts. In this regard, members should be required to abide by established rules and regulations imposed by facilities, so long as those rules and regulations are reasonable and do not amount to violations of law. Such rules must be applied in a neutral, non-discriminatory fashion. As long as these rules are developed and applied in this fashion, the judicial system will generally uphold their enforcement.

What makes a rule reasonable?

A 1984 case provides a good overview of fitness center membership rule requirements (Michigan, Ferrell v. Vic Tanny International (1984), 137 Mich. App. 238). In the case, certain members brought suit challenging the facility's adoption of a regulation requiring that all members wear navy blue clothing in certain areas of its facility. The suit claimed breach of contract, fraud, misrepresentation and deceit, as well as intentional infliction of emotional distress and constitutional, statutory and civil rights violations. The plaintiffs in this case sought damages of more than $1 million dollars each, as well as punitive damages and other sums. In response to the suit and these claims, the fitness center moved for summary judgment, namely a request for a ruling in its favor. The defendant contented that its membership contract allowed it to prescribe rules and regulations of membership, which, it contended, it properly adopted. The trial court granted the defendant's motion, and the plaintiffs appealed. On review, the appellate court noted, "The trial court properly reviewed the plaintiffs' complaints and the contractual provisions relative to defendant's reservation of a right to prescribe rules and regulations which must be obeyed by its members." That appellate court also noted, "Plaintiffs, in their complaints, recognized defendant's right to make rules and regulations, and conceded that they were in violation of a dress code requiring them to wear navy blue clothes in certain areas of the club which was enacted after they became members." While the appellate court noted that rules must be enacted in "honesty and in good faith," it found that the defendant "promulgated the dress code in good faith." The appellate court found no violation of constitutional or statutory rights, and no evidence of religious, racial or similar discriminatory conduct. The case, in essence, stands for the proposition that a fitness facility may adopt reasonable rules and regulations if its membership agreement allows the exercise of reasonable, non-discriminatory conduct that is not violative of constitutional or statutory law - even after a membership has been purchased and such rules adopted thereafter.

Enforce rules fairly

Facilities may adopt and enforce reasonable, non-discriminatory rules and regulations for members, and implement and even modify them after membership contracts are purchased, provided the membership agreement allows for those matters. Those rules and regulations may include prohibitions on members' violations of local, state or federal laws that affect their membership, or which occur on the premises. For example, rules that prohibit the use or sale of illegal drugs, such as anabolic steroids, or the theft of another member's property, are certainly appropriate. Such rules and regulations, however, must be applied to members in a non-discriminatory manner.
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