Update: Boston Sports Clubs have refunded the named plaintiffs in the lawsuit. Refunds have still not been issued to all members, however.
While gyms are shuttered across the country due to the coronavirus pandemic, it is expected members will not be charged for services they cannot use. But several notable gym chains, including one of the largest in the Northeast, have faced lawsuits in recent weeks for continuing to collect fees. And since the locations are closed, it is nearly impossible for swindled customers to cancel or freeze their memberships.
If you find yourself in this Kafkaesque nightmare, it is important to know you are legally in the right, says Boston-based attorney Michael Stefanilo Jr., whose law firm, Brody Hardoon Perkins & Kesten, recently filed a class action lawsuit against Town Sports international Holdings, which owns and operates 186 clubs with more than 600,000 members across the Northeast corridor.
“In Massachusetts, we have a strong consumer protection statute. Essentially, it prohibits unfair or deceptive business practices,” Stefanilo told Outsports in a recent phone conversation. “For Town Sports to charge its membership fees when it is unable to provide those members the service that was bargained for, constitutes an unfair business practice.”
Even though Boston Sports Clubs — one of the company’s several brands — closed all facilities in mid-March, they continued charging members without interruption. One of the four named club members filing in the suit told the Boston Globe he was charged $140 for his April membership, even though all non-essential business were ordered to close in Massachusetts through at least May 4.
Making matters worse, BSC laid off all of its employees, even though it was still collecting membership fees through early April.
Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healy has placed pressure on Boston Sports Clubs as well, penning a public letter to the company’s CEO.
While consumer protection statues differ from state-to-state, Stefanilo, an openly gay attorney who specializes in LGBT discrimination, says it is highly unlikely this practice would be legal anywhere. Town Sports international is also facing a class action suit in New York, where New York Sports Clubs were also still taking monthly dues from members during the coronavirus shutdown.
In addition, the California-based chains LA Fitness and 24 Hour Fitness are being sued for similar dubious practices, though LA Fitness says they stopped collecting fees April 1, and 24 Hour Fitness claims they will cease taking money from members April 16. Both companies have extended various reimbursement offers to members as well.
On Wednesday, Town Sports announced it is putting all BSC memberships on freeze without charge, and will provide customers with extra days of membership equal to the number of days they paid for while the facilities were closed. Still, the company has not announced any plans to refund members.
A call to Town Sports international’s corporate headquarters went unanswered.
Feeling the pressure after @BHPKLaw’s federal class action lawsuit was filed on 4/6 by partners Michael Stefanilo, Jr. and Lenny Kesten, TSI begins to backtrack and change course. However, there is still more to accomplish, as consumers remain without refunds. The fight goes on. pic.twitter.com/j9b6yRfEPc— Brody Hardoon Perkins & Kesten, LLP (@BHPKLaw) April 9, 2020
“It’s clear what TSI was doing was unfair to its members and took advantage of consumers during a time when many are already struggling financially,” Stefanilo said.
If your gym is still charging you during these times, Stefanilo says your first step should be to try and cancel the membership and obtain a refund. If that isn’t possible, then it’s time to look towards a legal remedy.
Author’s note: Alex Reimer is a member of Boston Sports Clubs, though he has not joined the class action lawsuit. Reimer also worked part-time as a sales associate for Boston Sports Clubs from January-February 2020.