Owner ends free play ‘super seniors.’ Is this age discrimination?

Q: We have been members of a country club in The Woodlands for 37 years. When we reached age 80 about 8 years ago, we were considered to be “super seniors,” meaning we were no longer required to pay dues, but we were still able to play all five golf courses. This ended in December 2021 when the new owner of our club banned super seniors from playing on two of the courses (unless we pay a guest fee). Plus, we now have to pay discounted monthly dues. This seems to be age discrimination. Their marketing materials say they now want to include a younger, more diverse array of members. Of course, we and others in our same situation can’t win a battle against the multibillion-dollar corporation that owns our club and many other clubs just like ours, but this seems wrong and discriminatory. Can you comment and give us your opinion?

A. You had a great deal while it lasted.

Being able to play on five courses with no monthly dues was a reward for making it to age fantastic 80. Most golf courses and country clubs offer discounts to seniors, but it’s extremely rare for a club to let seniors be full members at no charge.

If you look at the contract you have with the country club, it probably gives them the unilateral right to change the terms of your deal at any time and for any reason. That’s good for them and bad for you.

You can imagine the company’s executives sitting in a conference room looking over the numbers for your club. One of the first things they probably noticed are all the 80-plus-year-old members who are there playing golf for free. As a business trying to maximize profits, that would be an easy way to generate revenue. They know you have no other good options except to stay at their club.

After all, you’re not going to pay a large joining fee or higher monthly dues at a different club where you would have to meet all new people. You definitely won’t find a club with no initiation fee, no monthly dues, and three golf courses.

The owner of your club may be targeting younger members as a business strategy, especially if many of the younger members pay a large fee to join, purchase more food, and sign up for more club activities.

Denying you access to two courses and charging you monthly dues was not age discrimination. You are not an employee of the club nor were you seeking housing from them. Those are contexts where age discrimination can arise.

In fact, there are essentially no discrimination rules that apply to private clubs.

They can pick and choose who to admit as members, even if doing so blatantly discriminates against certain people, and they can charge their members whatever amounts they wish.

You should actually be thrilled that they are letting you remain club members at a discounted rate.

They could have decided to charge super seniors the same monthly dues everyone else pays, or they might have decided to charge you more. After all, assuming you are retired, you might play hundreds of rounds this year — far more than the younger, working members could ever hope to play.

The information in this column is intended to provide a general understanding of the law, not legal advice. Ronald Lipman of the Houston law firm Lipman & Associates is board-certified in estate planning and probate law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization.

Email questions to stateyourcase@lipmanpc.com.