Some stories that come my way are so off the wall, I immediately put them in the you-must-be-joking category. Josh Manheimer has one of those stories — except he’s not laughing.
In January, Manheimer received a certified letter from Our Court Tennis Club, a private, member-owned indoor facility in Hartford that he’s belonged to for more than 20 years.
The letter informed Manheimer that he was in danger of having his club membership revoked for violating Our Court’s guest policy. (The club charges $15 each time a member brings a guest, and the same guest can play no more than twice a month.)
“By our estimate (omitting sessions where you never signed up at all), you have failed to pay for a guest at least 724 times,” stated the letter from Our Court’s board of directors that Manheimer shared.
To avoid expulsion, Manheimer needed to fork over — are you ready for this? — the grand sum of $10,860.
“It sure seems like they just want to get rid of me, and I don’t know why,” he told me. “I just go there to play tennis. I’m not there to socialize.”
In early April, the club followed through on its threat to sideline him, Manheimer said. Now the 62-year-old advertising copywriter who lives in Norwich is setting up for an overhead slam of his own.
On April 11, with his playing privileges suspended indefinitely, Manheimer filed a civil lawsuit against the club in Windsor Superior Court. He’s seeking, among other things, the ability to “resume play at Our Court without fear of retribution.”
As of Friday, the club hadn’t filed a response.
The board’s letter to Manheimer is a story in itself. Apparently to come up with the 724 times that Manheimer allegedly didn’t pay guest fees, the board had to look back at the last seven years.
Why the club waited seven years to bring up the matter is anyone’s guess.
The two board members who signed the letter — President Judith Jackson, of Hartford, and Secretary Steven Maker, of Lyme — politely declined interview requests. They referred me to the club’s attorney, Bill O’Rourke, of Rutland. I left a message at his office from him on Thursday but did not hear back.
Our Court, which was built in 1986, sits at the bottom of a dead-end street, a mile south of the VA Medical Center on Route 5. The club, which features two hard-surface courts, has more than 125 members and is open 24/7, according to its website.
Manheimer and other members who are “equity owners” pay a one-time fee of $350 and an annual maintenance fee, which is currently $700.
The club doesn’t employ anyone to staff a front desk or take phone calls. Members punch in a code to unlock the front door. Court time is booked online.
When it came to paying guest fees, the club long operated on an honor system. Members were asked to stuff $15 and a slip of paper with their name into a wooden box in the facility’s lobby. If they didn’t have cash on them, members could put an IOU in the box and make good later.
“It was a very informal setup,” Manheimer said. “There was never an attempt on my part not to pay.”
It’s my understanding that about a year ago, the club switched over to an online payment system that allows members to pay guest fees when they sign up for a court.
In the beginning, the system had a few bugs, Manheimer said. One of them being that the earliest time to sign up for a court was 7 am
But Manheimer and his “buddies who were members” typically started playing at 6 am The problem came when he brought a guest that early in the morning. Since he couldn’t book a court for 6 am, he couldn’t pay through the online system, Manheimer said.
He pointed this out to club leaders in an email, but didn’t get a response, he said.
In his letter to Manheimer, the board wrote that “many OC members have seen you playing with guests, on many occasions, and yet records show that you have paid guest fees only a handful of times.”
Manheimer claims Our Court is using “numbers fabricated out of thin air” that he has no way of disputing. (The board acknowledged the $10,860 figure was only a “best estimate.”)
To “avoid a costly and protracted legal battle,” Manheimer sent the club a check for $255 on Feb. 4, according to court documents.
Why $255? Call it a peace offering.
The club was closed for a while at the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic. After it reopened, the cash box in the lobby was phased out and the system for paying online for early-morning guests still needed working out, Manheimer said.
“I recognized that I needed to settle up,” he told me.
But the club’s board, which Manheimer served on years ago, rejected his offer. Afterward, however, the club reduced its demand from $10,860 to $1,000, according to his court filing.
No go, he said: “They’re trying to get money out of me that I don’t owe.”
Manheimer is seeking nearly $8,000 in attorney’s fees that he incurred early on in the matter, according to the lawsuit. He now represents himself.
The club is using “bullying tactics” to coerce him into paying substantial sums to maintain his membership, Manheimer argues. The conduct “crosses a legal line,” violating the Vermont Consumer Protection Act, which prohibits businesses from engaging in unfair or deceptive acts, he maintains.
While Our Court’s board has been mum on what’s happening with Manheimer, it recently emailed members about surveillance cameras installed after a break-in at the club this winter.
“In addition to providing security against further break-ins, the cameras are also being used to help track court usage,” the board wrote, adding that cameras are the “best way to keep track of who is coming and going at Our Court. ”
But if you ask me, after hearing Manheimer’s story, it’s the club’s board that bears watching.
Jim Kenyon can be reached at email@example.com.