The U.S. Supreme Court famously ruled in PGA Tour v. Casey Martin (2001) that use of a cart is a reasonable accommodation for pro golfers with a qualified disability.
A new ruling from the Court of Appeal of California addresses whether a golfer with a qualified disability can drive their cart to wherever the ball lands on the course.
Last week, the California Court of Appeal affirmed a trial court victory for Marbella Golf and Country Club in San Juan Capistrano, Calif. Club member Jefferey Lurner sued Marbella’s owners in 2018, arguing they violated the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) by failing to reasonably accommodate his disability and denying him full and equal enjoyment of the course. A few years later, a jury returned a verdict in favor of Marbella. Lurner appealed.
The case presents an inside look at how a private country club operates in the complex and litigious world of disability law.
Writing for himself and two other justices, Justice Maurice Sanchez explained where Lurner’s case fell short.
After joining Marbella in 2010, Lurner was diagnosed with pulmonary arterial hypertension (PAH). The condition involves high blood pressure in the lungs, interferes with the flow of oxygen and causes shortness of breath. PAH makes it difficult to walk, especially uphill. Marbella’s course features many hills, inclines and elevation changes. Lurner, whose attorneys say the “mild exercise” he gains from playing golf is “essential to help prolong his life,” insists he must drive his cart to wherever his ball lands.
But Marbella doesn’t allow carts to travel anywhere and everywhere on the course.
Therein lies the rub.
Like other country clubs, Marbella has rules regarding where carts, which here lack seatbelts, can go. Those rules are designed to promote safety and to prevent property damage.
Carts at Marbella must generally be driven on cart paths, which provide access to all 18 holes. They can’t be driven over sprinkler heads, areas under construction, newly planted landscaping and steep downhill slopes. Carts are also advised to not come within 10 yards of any tee, green or bunker.
Lurner and Marbella staff couldn’t agree on how far Lurner should be able to deviate from club policy while driving his cart. Lurner argued Marbella’s staff tried to shame him into compliance by making club announcements that degradingly referred to him by name and urged him not to drive to certain areas.
“Remember, Mr. Lurner, par 3’s are cart path only,” one announcement allegedly declared.
Those admonitions didn’t work, Sanchez explained. Lurner “ignored” them and “continued to drive his golf cart on the restricted areas,” including, one staffer testified, on top of “recently planted, delicate grass.”
Lurner also avers that he and his family were harassed by club members, who supposedly resented him for “flouting” club policies. Lurner’s appellant brief says he was “continuously taunted and insulted for driving his cart to his ball as required by his disability.”
In one particularly egregious instance, Lurner and his wife “abruptly left the course without finishing their game” because they were “humiliated by other Marbella members who yelled at Lurner for violating the rules.” Lurner’s wife testified that a husband and wife team playing nearby “screamed” at them, shouting “Where the hell do you think you’re going?” and “Who the hell do you think you are?”
Lurner contends this harassment was by design: Marbella allegedly enforced disciplinary measures by “manipulating” club members into despising Lurner and then tormenting him.
Yet Marbella largely acquiesced to Lurner’s preferences. Sanchez described the club as minimizing conflict and allowing Lurner to “disregard the policy and drive his golf cart wherever he needed to on the golf course.”
Marbella’s tolerance wasn’t limitless. Lurner was suspended for 30 days on account of “challenging other golfers to a fistfight” after hitting his ball into a bunker on other golfers’ fairway and then searching for it while in their line of play.
Lurner, Sanchez wrote, challenged another member to a fight after hitting a ball “into the member’s foursome ahead of him.” Lurner said the member threatened to kill him, while other testimony suggests the golfer less threateningly warned Lurner “never to do it again.”
Marbella staff also faulted Lurner for what they regarded as dangerous acts. The club suspended him for 30 days in 2019 after he drove a cart into a bunker. Marbella’s general manager acknowledged Lurner had not been explicitly told to not drive into bunkers, but the GM felt that “common sense” should apply.
In addition, Marbella staff testified they tried to temper cart-provoked tensions. Staff were instructed to tell complaining members that Lurner “has a serious and chronic disease and we are working with him to do our best to accommodate.”
Sanchez reasoned that Marbella largely yielding to Lurner is key for applying the ADA.
Marbella “provided a reasonable modification” of its cart policy by allowing Lurner to “disregard” it and “drive his golf cart wherever he needed to on the golf course.” Sanchez also highlighted that after Lurner told Marbella staff about his disability and accompanying needs, they let him drive his cart “on prohibited areas” and “never disciplined him for it.”
The judge further emphasized the club adopted a de facto dispute resolution policy for addressing complaints by other members. Complainers were told Lurner had a “serious and chronic disease” and the club was trying to work with him “to do our best to accommodate.”
Although Lurner believed this ad hoc arrangement broke the law, Sanchez highlighted he didn’t find it so objectionable that he stopped going to the club. Lurner, in fact, “continued playing numerous rounds of golf at Marbella prior to trial.”
Lurner v. American Golf Corporation et al. suggests that golf courses which (formally or informally) permit golfers with qualified disabilities to enjoy expanded course access on a cart will likely satisfy the ADA. Courses that more stringently apply policies to golfers with qualified disabilities, however, could potentially run afoul of the law.
(This story has been updated to include the last four paragraphs, which were inadvertently left out.)