Judge paves way for trial against Donald Trump over Jupiter golf club take-over

Donald Trump is likely to be forced to take a break in his campaign for president next month to appear in federal court in West Palm Beach to explain why he hasn’t returned an estimated $6 million to members of his country club off Donald Ross Road.

Republican presidential candidate Donald J. Trump holds a copy of his magazine during a press conference at Trump National Golf Club in Jupiter, Florida on March 8, 2016. (Richard Graulich / The Palm Beach Post)

Republican presidential candidate Donald J. Trump holds a copy of his magazine during a press conference at Trump National Golf Club in Jupiter, Florida on March 8, 2016. (Richard Graulich / The Palm Beach Post)

U.S. District Judge Kenneth Marra this week paved the way for a trial to begin on August 15 by denying Trump’s request to throw out the lawsuit filed by those who were members of the club before the businessman-turned-TV-celebrity-turned-GOP-presidential-nominee bought it for $5 million in 2012.

In the 12-page ruling, Marra said there were “genuine questions of material fact regarding whether (Trump) breached the contract” with members of Trump National Golf Club in Jupiter by refusing to return their deposits, which ranged from $35,000 to $210,000. That means, he said, the lawsuit must be decided by a jury.

Members claim that Trump changed the rules once he bought the club from the Ritz-Carlton Golf Club & Spa, which had been losing as much as $4.2 million annually trying to keep it afloat. Under the previous rules, members could continue to pay their dues and use the club even after announcing their intentions to resign. Once a new member signed up, however, their hefty deposits were to be refunded.

Shortly after taking over the ailing club in a gated community off Donald Ross Road near Alternate A1A, Trump announced to those on the resignation list: “you’re out.”

In a December 2012 letter to club members, he wrote, the rules had to be changed to assure the club became the “ultra-prestigious club” he envisioned.

Therefore,  he explained, “if a person is on the resignation list, the membership does not want them to be an active member of the club — likewise as the owner of the club, I do not want them to utilize the club nor do I want their dues.

“In other words,” he continued, “we are committed to seeing Trump National Golf Club – Jupiter on the list of the best clubs in the world and if you choose to remain on the resignation list, you’re out.”

Shortly after, members said they were barred from using the club. Further, they claim, club officials have refused to return their deposits as they were required to do under their membership contracts with the Ritz.

At a hearing in March, Trump attorneys argued that the disgruntled members were denied entry because they hadn’t paid their dues. Further, they argued, Trump offered them attractive options to remain members.

If they agreed to give up their deposits, their annual dues would drop to $17,500 for three years and they would also get the use of 14 other Trump clubs around the country, including Mar-A-Lago in Palm Beach. Those who didn’t “opt-in” would see their annual dues jump to $21,500 and they wouldn’t get the chance to use other Trump facilities, according to the letter.

The options, those who filed suit claimed, constituted a breach of contract because it changed the terms of the long-standing agreement they had when they joined the club.

But, Trump attorneys countered, the club didn’t refuse to refund the deposits. Under another plan, longtime members would get their deposits back once new members signed up. Those who filed suit simply wanted to jump to the front of a very long line, they argued.

Marra said there is a true difference of opinion regarding the new rules. The disagreement turns on various details, such as the definition of such terms as “recall of the membership,” he wrote. That, he said, will be up to a jury to decide.