Haverhill women led the charge for change at clubs
Karen Richardson (left) and attorney Marsha Kazarosian reuniting in the conference room at Kazarosian’s office in Haverhill. Of the nine plaintiffs, Richardson received the largest award, a total of $342,000, which included $250,000 in punitive damages. | Photo: Spenser Hasak
BY ANNE MARIE TOBIN
The year was 1996. The Spice Girls’ hit single “Wannabe” was at the top of the chart, a website named eBay was launched and the O.J. Simpson double-murder trial began.
In Massachusetts, an equally noteworthy event was taking shape that would change the way country clubs nationwide would conduct business: Ten female golf members of Haverhill Country Club filed a gender discrimination lawsuit against the club, the first suit of its kind against a golf or country club in the United States to be tried in front of a judge and jury.
The lawsuit alleged that the club had discriminated against the women on the basis of gender on several grounds, among them a denial of equal access to the golf course, grill room and card room. The women alleged that the club had manipulated the waiting list for full membership where men routinely leapfrogged over women. They also alleged that the initiation fee to secure full membership privileges had been increased to dissuade women from applying.
The women came from diverse backgrounds; some were teachers, some were professionals and some were stay-at-home moms. What they had in common was a shared love of the game of golf and the place they chose to play it — Haverhill CC. They also shared a desire to be treated equally.
The case began on August 10, 1995 when attorney Marsha Kazarosian filed a complaint with the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination, alleging the club’s acts and practices violated the state’s public accommodations law that prohibits gender discrimination/ MCAD investigated and determined there was probable cause, following which Kazarosian filed a civil complaint in Superior Court in 1996.
The state’s attorney general, L. Scott Harshbarger, had also filed a complaint against the club and two complaints were consolidated for trial.
“The club’s behavior toward women was what I called “everything in your face and know your place’ and our place was beneath the men,” said Judy Borne, the lead plaintiff. “It was shocking to me as a professional person. I had never, ever been treated that way, I had always been treated the same way men were treated. It was mind-boggling the way these men thought it was OK to treat women to the point where 12-year-old boys had more rights than we did.”
Borne, a retired physical education teacher and former athletic director, grew up playing golf at Haverhill CC. She said Haverhill was a place where the atmosphere was friendly and warm. That began to change when the composition of the club’s governing board changed in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s.
Borne said new rules were put in place that affected only the women. “We could no longer tee off early on weekends as we had been allowed to do for years. Our golf professional, Tom Dufresne, had always let us go out early, because it was just dumb to have to sit around and have the tee empty.
“Sometimes, the men would ridicule us when we were waiting, just being downright mean. That was only one part of it, but it was sitting there on weekends having to wait to play when nobody was on the tee that started it.”
Borne said Sally Brochetti got the ball rolling by suggesting that the aggrieved women needed to take action.
Brochetti knew someone who worked in Kazarosian’s office and said she was a good lawyer. “So we got in the car and went to her office,” said Borne.
That one meeting was all Kazarosian needed to be convinced that the women were being treated unfairly.
“I couldn’t believe my ears when they told me what was going on,” Kazarosian said. “But I was convinced that the whole thing could be resolved with a phone call, as I knew people at Haverhill. But when I made that call, I was given short shrift and told, ‘Don’t you worry your head about this, we will resolve it ourselves.’ It was so condescending. So, shortly after that first meeting with Sally, we filed with the MCAD.
“The worst of it was that the club abjectly refused to consider that what they were doing was wrong. They refused to accept responsibility, they dug in their heels in spite of the fact that they were blatantly violating the law.”
The group originally swelled to as many as 22 plaintiffs, but that number quickly decreased when some of the women’s spouses got wind about what was happening Borne said one of the most disturbing incidents involved a female member who dropped out of the group because of her husband.
“I still remember the day she came into the locker room, sobbing uncontrollably. She said her husband found out about the lawsuit and told her, ‘Sure, you can be a part of it, but use your own money.’ She was a stay-at-home mom who raised five or six kids; she had no money of her own. I was the only single woman in the group, but I could not believe how anyone could not want equal rights for his wife.”
The number fell further when some women realized the lawsuit would impact their ability to just go to the club and play golf. One woman dropped out after the case had been filed, leaving nine plaintiffs – Borne, Brochetti, Diana Cordner, Pamela Dean, Cindy Johnston, Laura Kimball, Linda Letendre (who later secured separate counsel), Karen Richardson and Maria Torrisi – who vowed to continue.
On a personal level, the lawsuit had a devastating effect. Letendre’s marriage ended. Kimball, a real estate agent, lost clients and business. Plaintiffs lost the social benefits one enjoys belonging to a country club: the women were shunned by fellow members, male and female. They no longer felt welcome at their own club.
On October 28, 1999, a Superior Court jury found for the women and awarded the group $1,967,400 in damages after a four-and-a-half week trial. Judge John C. Cratsley, who presided over the trial, also ordered permanent cessation of all unlawful discriminatory actions.
During the trial, the club fought to prove that it was not a “place of public accommodation.” The plaintiffs fought just as hard to prove it was.
“That was key to our case. Gender discrimination is specifically prohibited at places of public accommodation,” Kazarosian said. “Clubs that are not places of public accommodation can legally discriminate, so we had to prove that Haverhill fell under the definition to be able to succeed on our gender discrimination claim: things like the fact that Haverhill was basically totally open to the public for functions and had a website advertising and welcoming the public … and also the fact that everyone who applied to the club got (accepted for membership). All of that helped prove our contention.”
The jury ruled that Haverhill was a place of public accommodation.
The jury then weighed each woman’s case: whether Haverhill discriminated against the plaintiff and, if so, what their damages were.
The jury found for each plaintiff. Borne’s verdict was the first to be read. She received a total of $306,600; $64,000 in damages, $230,000 in punitive damages and $12,600 for the club’s breach of the covenant of good faith and fair dealing, which every plaintiff received. Brochetti’s award was identical to Borne’s. The jury awarded Cordner $86,600, Dean $78,600, Johnston $250,600, Kimball $230,600, Letendre $278,600 and Torrisi $86,600.
Richardson’s award was a blockbuster – $342,600, including $250,000 against the club in punitive damages.
Richardson had been suspended from the club for 21 days at the height of the tournament season in 1995 for “insubordination.” She was the official in charge of the club’s annual couples tournament. Court records show golf chairman Robert Hanagan told Richardson to add four teams with “callaways” (players without handicaps).
When she did not, she was summoned to the club rules committee to defend her inaction and that Scott Gleason, a committee member, told the committee that Hanagan was “God when it came to golf at the Haverhill Country Club and we don’t defy God.”
“It was the annual husband-wife championship, a tournament that had always been run by the women’s golf committee,” Richardson said. “All of a sudden, I’m in front of the board wondering what this was all about, only to be told I was suspended because I didn’t do what I was told.”
A two-time state amateur champion, Richardson received support, not from her own club but from nearby Bradford Golf Club, which offered her membership privileges during her suspension.
Kazarosian remembers the day of the verdict as if it happened yesterday. She and the women had been at the courthouse each of the three-and-a-half days the jury deliberated. “I was sitting with a news reporter from Channel 4, I think it was Charlie Austin, and all of a sudden he just blurted out, ‘Hey, you’re going to win this case, I just know it’. Twenty minutes later, they told us the jury was in, so we all filed into the courtroom. Once they announced Judy’s award, I just faded to black.”
Kazarosian said that upon leaving the courthouse the group was deluged by media. Eventually, everyone ended up at the Meridien Hotel (now the Langham) across the street.
“We spent the rest of the day there celebrating,” Kazarosian said. “I was so happy for the women, who were extraordinary throughout the whole ordeal. They had been treated so badly, they had been ostracized not only by the men, but by women as well who didn’t want to get involved. They banded together and were so strong, taking so much abuse on a daily basis.” The impromptu celebration included entertainment, provided by Borne. A friend of hers was playing the piano. “He called me up to sing, so I sang a version of ‘Hello Dolly’, only it was ‘Hello Marsha,’ said Borne, who had been a professional entertainer.
“We truly never expected the award,” she continued, “and I still remember hearing Henry Owens, the club attorney, yelling to the media outside the courthouse that they were going to win on appeal and we had better not spend our money.”
Owens was wrong. On June 13, 2003, the Suffolk County Court of Appeals upheld the lower court’s decision. The decision, written by the Suffolk County Court of Appeals upheld the lower court’s decision.
The decision, written by Justice Rudolph Kass, at times reads straight out of “Caddyshack.”
The jury found that the club had engaged in unequal application of club rules to the detriment of the plaintiffs. Kass wrote that Richardson’s suspension was “Biblically stern.” Yet “on the other hand, when two male members, one of whom was a member of the board of governors, cavorted in the buff with two waitresses in the club swimming pool – an infraction of the rules – the response was indulgent. Volker Wrampe, the general manager, was upon inquiry, told by the club president ‘not to worry about it. We do it all the time.’”
The club did not challenge the jury’s finding that it was a place of public accommodation, but it challenged nearly everything else, and failed to persuade the appellate court on any count.
From manipulation of waiting lists for full membership, where the names of women candidates mysteriously disappeared from the list and women were dropped below new male applicants, to denial of access to the 19th hole grill room and card room, to limits on access of women to the golf course to unequal application of club rules, the appellate court upheld the findings of the lower court.
The lower court’s injunctive relief orders barring the club from future discrimination were also upheld. The club was ordered to disclose its membership policies to the entire membership; to create and maintain a membership handbook; to establish written rules governing access to the golf course; and to have its Board of Governors, committee chairs and all management employees undergo mandatory training on gender discrimination.
Despite failing on appeal, Haverhill continued to fight and applied to the Supreme Judicial Court for further review. That request was denied in November 2003, bringing an end to the eight-and-a-half-year journey.
“It was never about the money. In fact, we never really talked about the money. It was about being denied the joy that the game of golf had given us, but was taken away,” Borne said. “I felt that golf is a game of honor, but these men were defaming the game for all of us. We all stood together to right this wrong and I consider this to be the finest thing I have ever done. I take a lot of pride in standing up for my fellow women. Couples divorced over this suit, people were slandered, Karen was suspended, it was all so wrong, but ultimately we were found to be right.”
Since the decision, the plaintiffs have gone their separate ways.
Borne resides in Yarmouth Port. Brochetti moved to Arizona. Richardson, a former physical education teacher and golf coach at Georgetown High School, still competes on the amateur circuit. Kimball splits time between homes in North Conway, N.H., and Naples, Fla. Dean also spends her winters in Naples. Johnson lives on Cape Cod. Torrisi is the only plaintiff who still is a Haverhill CC member. Richardson said Cordner passed away.
Richardson has returned to Haverhill CC several times as a guest.
“Some people were cordial, some didn’t talk to me at all,” she said. “There were many women who were controlled by their husbands and thought that what we were doing was awful, but, while it was by no means easy, we stuck to our guns and prevailed.”
Richardson said her husband, Chet, was often asked why he could not control his wife.
“His response was, I had a mind of my own and the right to do what I felt was right,” Richardson said. Chet Richardson was not alone; many spouses were ostracized by fellow members and some lost business because of their wives’ involvement in the lawsuit.
As the civil action played out, many similar gender discrimination claims were being raised by women in the United States and abroad. Kazarosian’s phone rang off the hook.
“I got calls from clubs every week from lawyers and club officials who were in the process of reviewing their bylaws,” she said. “It was so frustrating that things were changing at all these other clubs except Haverhill.”
Kazarosian, who is the immediate past president of the Massachusetts Bar Association, also got a call from the National Organization for Women about a little club in Georgia.
“They wanted me to lead a lawsuit against Augusta (National), which had no female members,” she said. “I declined because Georgia was one of only five states that did not include gender discrimination in its public accommodation statutes, so their golf and country clubs could pretty much do whatever they wanted.”
The women’s story was featured on HBO’s Real Sports and was referred to by The New York Times in 1999 as a “landmark case.” For Richardson, the jury verdict and appellate court affirmation was especially meaningful.
“Obviously, the jury felt that what had happened to me was unjust as I received the most damages,” she said. “I testified for two full days, but knowing that the jury believed me meant something more than the money. I also got support from women at other clubs who sent me thank-yous for doing what we did. We would wait to play and then some kid would come up and get to tee it up before we could. We felt this was the 21st century and you just can’t do that crap to women just because they are women. We never once thought about quitting and we never once thought we would lose.”
Torrisi says everything these days at Haverhill is “fine and dandy.”
“Everything is as it should be, it’s peaceful and we have all the things the girls were looking for all those years ago,” she said. “I am very happy. … We have a lot of new young blood at the club, on the board, and Haverhill is a fun place to be. I don’t want to lose ownership of the role we played getting to this point, but all that is behind us and things are wonderful.”
Haverhill Country Club did not respond to requests for comment.
Photos: Spenser Hasak