Members of Boston Sports Clubs on Monday filed a lawsuit against the fitness company, accusing it of breaking the law by continuing to collect monthly fees — even though the chain closed all its gyms in mid-March because of the coronavirus.
By charging its members for services they can’t receive, the company is showing “unconscionable corporate avarice,” alleges the suit, filed Sunday in US District Court, against Boston Sports Club’s New York-based parent company, Town Sports international Holdings. The plaintiffs are seeking class-action status.
“They shut their facilities, shut down the phone lines, and made it impossible to quit,” said Lenny Kesten, of Brody, Hardoon, Perkins & Kesten, the lawyer for the plaintiffs. “It’s appalling behavior to take people’s money when you know you’re not providing them with a service.”
Even as the company was collecting fees, it was furloughing or terminating thousands of employees, according to news reports.
“If they didn’t lay off their employees, I might have let it ride,” said Paul DelVecchio, one of the four named club members filing the suit. He said he and his wife, Lynne, were charged $140 for April membership at BSC’s South Station gym on Atlantic Avenue, even though it’s closed.
“It doesn’t seem right. They’re trying to work both ends,” DelVecchio said.
Multiple calls to the company’s corporate headquarters in New York were met with a busy signal. No one answered at BSC’s closed Boston clubs, either.
Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey said she has contacted someone at the company and is attempting to negotiate a settlement after receiving more than 100 complaints. She has also sent a demand letter, ordering the company to allow members to cancel by e-mail or phone and without incurring penalty fees.
“Boston Sports Club needs to be honest with its customers about their right to cancel gym memberships,” Healey said. "Our office will do everything we can to protect consumers during this crisis.”
The company, one of the largest gym chains in the Northeast, has 30 locations in Massachusetts, including more than 10 in Boston. Nationwide, it has more than 600,000 members at 186 clubs that use various names, according to the publicly traded company’s latest filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission.
A federal lawsuit against the company had already been filed in New York.
Other gyms, including Equinox and Blink, have stopped collecting monthly fees, according to the New York lawsuit.
Town Sports International’s chief executive, Patrick Walsh, sent two e-mails to members, one in late March and a second one dated in March, but which arrived on April 1.
“I want to reassure you that, as previously promised, we will issue credits to your accounts and address all membership-related concerns once our gyms are operating,” Walsh wrote last Tuesday, March 31.
“The Town Sports team is working hard to navigate uncharted territory while we continue to plan for what may be a challenging future,” Walsh wrote. “We have made some extremely difficult decisions, but they are decisions that should ultimately benefit the Town Sports family, our members and our gyms.”
The company recently reported to the SEC that it has suffered a “major interruption" in its operations that could jeopardize its future.
Revenue losses as well as required rent and loan payments could “contribute to conditions that raise substantial doubt about our ability to continue as a going concern” in another year, the company wrote.
A second e-mail from Walsh, also dated March 31, told members they could temporarily “freeze” their memberships and provided an e-mail address to make the request. But members said the message arrived after April dues had already been collected by autopayment on their credit cards.
And several members said their messages to the address cited in the e-mail have gone unanswered. Members said phone calls were not returned, either.
To quit, members are required to appear in person or send a certified letter, according to the company’s website. Neither option is available now that the clubs are closed.
Members have posted complaints on social media. An online petition demanding that BSC “be held accountable and responsible for reimbursing” members has already drawn more than 3,000 signatures.
The company "absolutely illegally continues charging our bank accounts and keeping us hostage to their memberships without any option to freeze or cancel,” says the petition, posted on Change.org.
The plaintiffs in the suit, who are alleging the company is violating the state’s consumer protection law, are asking a judge to order the company to reimburse members and pay attorneys’ fees, costs, and unspecified damages, which can be tripled under the law.
In addition, they are seeking an order allowing members to cancel their memberships without having to provide written authorization and a “reasonable method” for members to suspend memberships before any additional charges are imposed.
Andrea Estes can be reached at email@example.com.