Bob Lobel earned national fame for his 29-year run as a sportscaster on Boston’s WBZ-TV. But these days, his commentary is helping to start a new conversation about what some advocates say is a common issue that rarely gets attention: discrimination against disabled individuals at recreational facilities in the United States.
Lobel, 71, who enjoys playing golf but must use an adaptive cart due to a degenerative condition, has filed a discrimination lawsuit against an Auburndale, Mass., golf club that has barred him from using the cart on its putting greens. David Garfinkel, manager of Woodland Golf Club, offered a written statement that said a test his staff conducted determined Lobel’s cart would cause damage to the green, thus placing an undue burden on the club, which is funded through fees from its hundreds of members. The statement also said Woodland does not permit the use of any golf carts on its green. Garfinkel declined to comment further for this FoxNews.com article.
Jeffrey Denner, one of the Boston lawyers representing Lobel, argues that Woodland’s decision violates the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the state’s public accommodations law, which offer protection against discrimination to disabled or handicapped individuals. Lobel cannot walk without crutches due to spinal stenosis, a condition marked by a narrowing of the open spaces in the spine. The condition puts pressure on the spinal cord, the nerves in the spine and the arms and legs, affecting mobility. It is the same condition that Mets third-baseman David Wright suffers from.
“To say that you can play golf but can’t go on the greens is really like saying we’re going to give you the food, but you can’t eat it,” Denner told FoxNews.com. “It’s bad enough that people get disabled then experience these unnecessary changes in their life.”
In his lawsuit, Lobel demands an order that would prevent Woodland from any future alleged acts of discrimination, as well as $250,000 in compensatory damages and an additional unspecified amount in punitive damages and attorneys’ fees.
As a result of Woodland’s alleged discrimination, Lobel has “sustained injuries and damages including the right to socialize with longtime friends, feelings of isolation and depression,” according to the lawsuit.
Lobel’s lawyers did not allow Lobel to comment for this article in light of the recently filed lawsuit.
Woodland calls itself a private club with services that are available to its members and their guests, but the state of Massachusetts’ public accommodations law still applies to businesses that open their doors to the public for separate events, Denner said. He argued Woodland is subject to the law because it rents space to the public for events like tournaments, banquets and weddings.
Lobel is not a member of the club but played on the course as a guest of his friend Gerry Chervinsky, whose request to allow Lobel to use the cart at Woodland was previously denied by top club officials.
“I feel badly that my friend is being discriminated against,” Chervinsky, a member of the club, said during a news conference in Quincy, Mass., earlier this month. “I feel badly that the club will now be put through this unfortunate situation. I hope the majority of the members will agree that the club should be compliant with federal disability law.”
Former professional golfer Casey Martin successfully sued the Professional Golfers' Association of America (PGA) Tour in 2001 under the ADA after officials would not allow him to use a standard golf cart on the course. Martin, who is 43 and now the head coach of the golf team at the University of Oregon, has a debilitating birth defect in his right leg that hinders his ability to walk, and he cited the ADA to help win his case.
Martin said he wasn’t fully familiar with Lobel’s lawsuit, but, despite his personal experience facing discrimination while playing golf, he gave Woodland the benefit of the doubt.
“It becomes a tough situation because certainly you don’t want to destroy the green— it’s expensive and allows a golf club to thrive and service its members,” Martin told FoxNews.com. “But based on what I know about some of those single-rider devices, it probably wouldn’t do a lot of damage.”
Martin said that in Eugene, where he coaches, adaptive golf carts are allowed on the course, even when it rains and the grass is softer.
“[Woodland] may want to do a little more research before they tell [Lobel], ‘No,’” Martin said.
The Department of Justice (DOJ), which oversees cases that may implicate the ADA, would not comment for this article to avoid implicitly offering legal advice. But a Jan. 15, 1999 technical letter from the U.S. Attorney General to retiring U.S. Congressman Ruben E. Hinojosa (D-TX) permits protection under the ADA if certain criteria are met. For example, a golfer may have protection if he or she is deemed by the court to be an “individual with a disability,” and further, the ADA requires golf courses whose services are publicly consumed to “make reasonable modifications in their policies, practices, and procedures in order to ensure that an individual with a disability has an equal opportunity to participate in the program or activity that the covered entity provides.”
David D’Arcangelo, director of the Massachusetts Office on Disability, the state’s advocacy agency that serves the disabled population, said those modifications for an individual like Lobel may include providing a caddy assistant or offering a separate set of tires that may be less deleterious to the green than the ones he currently uses on his cart.
“I would say that oftentimes it’s the process,” D’Arcangelo told FoxNews.com. “Did the course try to work with him? If they didn’t, then I would say, ‘No, it’s on the course.’”
If that’s the case, D’ArcAngelo said, he “can see where Mr. Lobel is upset.”
“I appreciate what he’s trying to do for persons with disabilities who may want to golf at any course,” D’Arcangelo said. “I hope that both sides can be able to come to a reasonable resolution because, at the end of the day, that’s what we want.”
In the state of Massachusetts, in a case like Lobel’s, for a business to prove an individual’s accommodation places an undue burden on its services, that business would need to qualify how the damages the cart inflicts on its green affect any number of factors, like finances, members’ satisfaction, or its overall reputation, said Massachusetts Commissioner Sunila Thomas George, who works on the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination (MCAD). George said state law does not require businesses to provide a replacement accommodation that would presumably cause a separate instance of undue burden. But in cases like Lobel’s, before a business can definitely deny someone from using one of its services after an overall undue burden is confirmed, that business must also “engage in interactive dialogue” with the individual to ensure all options have been exhausted.
“It all depends on the facts of, ‘What did the conversation look like?’” George told FoxNews.com.
Michael Longo, another lawyer representing Lobel, said Lobel uses two adaptive golf carts: the ParaGolfer and the SoloRider, both of which swivel and help handicapped golfers swing their golf clubs. Longo said he wasn’t sure which cart Woodland used in its test to determine the damage it caused its green, but he noted Lobel uses both carts on greens at other local golf clubs. He said the golf carts are also prevalent on other professional courses, like Pebble Beach, across the U.S.
Abel Andrade, a sales consultant for Dallas, Tex.-based SoloRider, the larger of Lobel's adaptive carts, according to Longo, said the SoloRider's weight distribution system prevents the device from causing an imprint that would be more pronounced than that of someone simply standing on the green.
“The cart is designed specifically not to do that,” Andrade told FoxNews.com. “It can be driven onto the green without impact. It has no more pressure than the riding lawnmowers used to cut the grass.”
Christine Griffin, an attorney specializing in disability law, and the executive director of the Disability Law Center, said she doubted Lobel’s adaptive golf cart would cause enough damage to quantify an undue burden on Woodland. And if Lobel’s cart causes minor wear and tear to the club’s green, that still doesn’t exempt them from abiding by state and federal anti-discrimination laws, she said.
“If there’s damage, then that’s the price of business. You’re providing access for everybody who wants to golf,” Griffin, whose Northampton, Mass.-based organization offers free legal advice to disabled individuals, told FoxNews.com.
The U.S. Golf Association (USGA), a national association of golf courses, clubs and facilities, does not track lawsuits involving discrimination against disabled golf players, Janeen Driscoll, spokeswoman for the USGA, told FoxNews.com. But George, the Massachusetts commissioner, said several individuals have filed lawsuits against golf clubs in the state— many of them under employment, but some under public accommodations like Lobel’s.
Griffin said she thinks the issue is more common than any number of reported cases may suggest.
“I am thrilled that he’s (Lobel) challenged this,” said Griffin, who is a paraplegic. "I think a lot of people in his situation who are told that they can’t go on the greens with the car, and things like that, are intimidated and don’t do it.”
Martin, who is now based in Oregon, said he could empathize with Lobel.
“The biggest thing is nobody wants to be in an adaptive device,” Martin said. “[Lobel] obviously loves golf and would love to be walking the golf course, but the fact is, in this world, crap happens and it’s unfortunate.”
“When I went through it, it was an opportunity to compete,” he added, “and for him, it’s an opportunity to pursue something he loves.”