Last month, Jessie Fire sat with a salesman from Elite Home Fitness LLC, which had posted a flier in her Cambridge building offering personal training in the in-house gym.
Fire handed over $5,000, the first installment on a one-year contract costing $14,400.
Pricey, perhaps, but not otherwise an unusual transaction, except for the fact that Jessie is mentally challenged due to a neurological condition she’s had since birth.
The next morning, Jessie’s mother, Cathy, said she “almost fainted” when her daughter told her she had spent practically all her money with one swipe of her debit card.
Jessie, 31, lives on her own, holds down a full-time job at a day care center, and manages her affairs pretty well, Cathy said.
“But there are areas where I have to protect her,” she said. “She has trouble with reasoning and logic and doesn’t have a good concept of money.”
So Cathy called the Elite office in Boston immediately to explain Jessie’s cognitive problems.
About 1 million people nationwide are afflicted with hydrocephalus. Reduced “executive function” and trouble making judgments are common. The only treatment is surgery; Jessie was barely a week old when she had her first surgery, and she’s had a dozen more since.
“I thought they would say, ‘Oh, sorry, we didn’t know,’ ” Cathy said. “And that would be the end of it.”
Instead, an Elite representative told her it was too late to void the contract because it had already been “processed” in the company’s corporate offices in Providence, Cathy said.
Cathy remembers being repeatedly told “there’s nothing we can do.”
Cathy said she told the representative that Jessie would not be able to pay the remaining $9,400 balance on her salary as a teacher’s aide at a day-care center.
“We’ll refer it to a collection agency, if we have to,” Cathy says she was told.
Cathy persisted in vain for days, imploring various Elite representatives “to do the right thing.”
It wasn’t only about the money; the family is fortunate to have financial resources.
But when Jessie realized she had acted recklessly in forking over her entire savings without so much as a word with her mother, she fell apart.
“When I finally made Jessie understand what she had done, she became hysterical,” Cathy wrote in her e-mail asking for my help. “Now she is crying, calling herself names, saying she wishes she was dead.”
Jessie told me when we met that she wants to lose weight. And when the management of her building invited Elite to make sale pitches to tenants, she jumped at the chance. There were lots of choices — join for three, six, or 12 months; two, three, or four sessions a week. There were discounts based on how much was paid upfront.
Jessie said the salesman patiently went over all the options. There was no bullying. Still, she described the sales pitch as “a lot of mumbo-jumbo,” that she didn’t quite understand.
“It’s actually something I regret,” she said of signing the contract, before breaking down in tears.
I don’t fault the salesman (nor do Jessie or Cathy). But I have a big problem with what Elite did, and didn’t do, after Jessie signed the contract.
I described what happened to two experts at the Hydrocephalus Association, a research organization. Both said they would cut the salesman some slack but thought the contract should have been quickly ripped up once Jessie’s condition was disclosed.
I visited the Elite office near South Station. After a short conversation with Luis Mendonca, the salesman, he began making calls in my presence recommending that the contract be voided, which it was.
Cathy told me that she had repeatedly explained Jessie’s medical condition to Elite personnel, including manager David Bird. But Bird told me he doesn’t remember Cathy mentioning a medical condition, which seems odd since that was the reason Cathy was demanding cancellation.
The whole episode should have been avoided, based on the automatic right to cancel in state law: “Every contract for health care club services shall provide clearly and conspicuously in writing that such contract may be cancelled within three business days.”
A lawyer for Elite cited what I consider a silly technicality in evading the three-day rule: Elite doesn’t operate a physical health club; it goes to where its customers are. And the law, passed almost 35 years ago, applies to “each [health club] facility or location.”
Still, it’s clear to me that lawmakers, reacting to a spate of consumer complaints about committing to long-term contracts they almost instantly regretted, intended to protect the likes of Jessie Fire. Maybe a legislative fix is in order.Sean Murphy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @spmurphyboston.