Hollywood Golf Club Sued for Discrimination

Lakeside Golf Club, where a membership starts at $80,000 and photos of Frank Sinatra playing caddy for Bing Crosby and Bob Hope grace the lounge walls, is the epitome of Hollywood's most exclusive and privileged luxuries.

It's a club for everyone who's anyone in Los Angeles. So how is it decided who gets to join, how often they can play, and what membership privileges they're granted?

Jennifer Merkel admits she's a poor golfer, but she took up the sport anyway in the hope that it would bring her closer to her husband, a life-long player with a membership at Lakeside.

But Merkel was told she couldn't golf with her husband on Saturdays or Wednesdays, because of club policy. Furthermore, she was informed that on Sundays, unless her husband was available to play with her, she couldn't tee off until after 11 a.m.

Merkel insists that the club has been less than accommodating, not because she's lacking in golf skills but because she's a woman.

"We should have the same privileges that a male member has," Merkel said, adding, "It doesn't matter whether you're a good golfer or not, I should have the same rights they do."

Her husband, Reggie Lee, agrees.

"It's distressing to me that in this day and age, that a club like Lakeside exists where it discriminates against women and treats them like second-class citizens," said Lee.

Which is why Merkel and Lee have filed a civil rights lawsuit against Lakeside Golf Club, alleging that it discriminates against women by denying them membership, barring their entry to certain lounges and restricting their tee times.

Lakeside, one of Hollywood's most recognized and respected golf courses, is renowned for its impressive and ultra-exclusive membership roster. That same directory now faces intense scrutiny in light of Merkel and Lee's accusations that the club refuses to grant regular membership to women.

Merkel claims that as a woman, she is limited to "special" membership status, which prohibits her from serving on the club's board, holding equity or playing whenever the course is open. Those privileges are reserved for the club's regular or life members, all of whom are men, said Merkel's attorney, Leo J. Terrell.

All-male clubs are not as common as they used to be, but they're certainly not unheard of in the golf world. The Augusta National Golf Club in Georgia, which hosts the Masters Tournament, has been criticized in recent years for its strict no-female-members policy.

According to Alfred P. Carlton Jr., a former president of the American Bar Association and an expert in corporate law, most golf clubs are not subject to discrimination lawsuits because state and federal guidelines that hold public organizations accountable for discriminatory practices do not apply to privately run associations.

"These are private organizations, and as long as they are not accepting public subsidy or tax-exempt status, their internal rules are subject to membership approval alone," said Carlton.

However, a key distinction in the Lakeside case is California's Unruh Civil Rights Act, which outlaws discrimination based on sex, race, color, religion, ancestry, national origin, disability or medical condition, and it applies to all business establishments in the state, including nonprofit organizations, such as the Lakeside Golf Club.

Citing a violation of Unruh as a major component to their lawsuit, Merkel and Lee claim that Lakeside discriminates against domestic partnership as well, alleging that club rules limit family member privileges only to couples who are married to someone "of the opposite sex."

Lakeside's general manager, Lance Sabella, did not deny any of the lawsuit's allegations, but in a written statement, Sabella did contend that Merkel and her husband only sued because the club planned to revoke Lee's membership.

"This lawsuit by Mr. Lee is a most unfortunate attempt to deflect attention away from his own public conduct," said Sabella, citing "three years of discussions, notices and warnings concerning his disruptive, ungentlemanly and unacceptable conduct" as grounds for the board's decision to terminate his membership.

"How can they have integrity when they allow nude women on the course?" Terrell retorted, referring to the club's annual Kelly Cup tournament, where, the lawsuit alleges, "completely naked women, aka strippers and prostitutes, are allowed on the golf course and drink with members and guests."

"Occasionally, there have been scantily clad women there to greet the players," explained John Chappell, the club's president. "But that has happened for the last time," he added.

Dismissing Lee and Merkel's claims as a "complete fabrication," Chappell maintained that Lakeside is run with integrity and professionalism, in accordance with the club's bylaws, which he emphasized are "gender neutral."

"We would never purport that a woman can't be a member," Chappell said, adding that there is one female member within the club, but in the 28 years that he's been there, "women just haven't applied."

According to Sabella, that one female club member actually holds the "highest level of membership" at the club and attained that status in her own right, not as a transfer.

That's a right Merkel insists she was never afforded.

"They don't want women out there, period," Merkel said, adding that unless Lakeside changes its policies to include women and domestic partners, she doesn't want to be out there anyway.