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Country Club Accused of Discrimination

May 24, 1997|MIGUEL BUSTILLO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

THOUSAND OAKS — Arguing that men have better tee times, more places to have a drink, a new men-only lounge and numerous other unfair privileges, a couple are suing the posh North Ranch Country Club alleging it discriminates against female members.

Marlene Forstrom and her husband, Lawrence Clark, of Thousand Oaks contend that when couples join the North Ranch Country Club, the membership is held in the name of one person--traditionally the man.

The women, meanwhile, are typically classified as "spouse members," which severely hamstrings their status at the 27-hole club, according to the suit, filed this week in Ventura County Superior Court.

The couple's attorney, David L. Praver, argues that the club, though private, does limited business with the public and must therefore comply with the California Unruh Civil Rights Act, which prohibits businesses from discriminating on the basis of race, religion or gender.

Praver, who contends that his clients have suffered emotional trauma, is seeking $50,000 as well as an injunction prohibiting the club from continuing its allegedly discriminatory practices.

Praver, Forstrom and Clark could not be reached for comment Friday.

Lawyer Tony Ciasulli, the club's house counsel, said the gender discrimination allegations are ludicrous.

"North Ranch denies the allegations in the lawsuit, and intends to fight this all the way," said Ciasulli, who said he has represented about 100 clubs around the world.

The issue of whether California country clubs can prohibit women from enjoying the same membership privileges as men has been a hot topic in Sacramento recently.

In a set of recent decisions that stunned country clubs statewide, the California Supreme Court has upheld state antidiscrimination laws affecting membership at private clubs.

As a result, state Sen. Ken Maddy (R-Fresno) introduced a bill that would have allowed private country clubs that do some business with the public to prohibit women as full members, but it was rejected by his peers.

Forstrom and Clark contend in the suit that North Ranch Country Club:

* Spent $185,000, without a vote of the club's general membership, to build a men's lounge, "while spending little or nothing to provide a comparable lounge area for women."

The men's lounge contains a bar that is off-limits to women, and men can always get a drink during regular hours. The women's lounge, meanwhile, contains no bar and women are often unable to get a drink, alcoholic or nonalcoholic, during regular business hours, according to the suit.

* Conducts golf tournaments that are designated as "member tournaments," but are in essence open only to men, since most women are classified as "spouse members." Female "spouse members" are not allowed to compete in the tournaments, but male "spouse members" are, according to the suit.

* Holds "spouse-member tournaments" that are in practice open only to female members, and exclude the few male "spouse members."

* Grants members preferable tee times and hours of play over "spouse members," unless the "spouse member" happens to be male. For example, the suit contends that members can play all day Saturday and Sunday, but that the access of female "spouse members" is "severely restricted."

Ciasulli said that is simply untrue.

"There are absolutely no times in which women members are denied equal access to that golf course," he said. "Women members and male members have absolutely equal access."

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