MONTEBELLO, Calif. - Hispanic gym goers in Los Angeles are about to flex their legal muscle against a nationwide fitness chain they claim deliberately failed to maintain proper health standards in clubs where a majority of members are Latino.
“The health conditions in this place are terrible,” says Abraham Mendoza, who since 1989 has been a member of the L.A. Fitness gym in Montebello, a mostly Latino neighborhood. “There is no soap, there is no toilet paper, machines are all dirty… an activity that should be healthy has turned hazardous.”
Mendoza and about half-a-dozen others stood outside the entrance to the gym, owned by the Irvine-based Fitness International LLC, gathering signatures for a petition to be used as part of the suit. He says some 200 disgruntled L.A. Fitness members have already signed.
The move comes on the heels of several similar suits filed in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Chicago, claiming that Fitness International violated consumer fraud regulations by not recognizing lifetime membership contracts with the Chicago-based Bally Fitness, also named in the suit and which late last year sold 171 of its gyms to the California company for $153 million.
L.A. Fitness is the second-highest grossing fitness center in the country, according to Club Industry’s “Top 100 Clubs” list, with annual revenues topping $1 billion. A discrimination suit was filed in 2010 against top-grossing 24 Hour Fitness by a Hispanic employee who claimed he was passed over for promotions because of his ethnicity.
The attorney representing plaintiffs in the L.A. Fitness case in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, Mark Guralnick, was quoted in media reports last week saying that he has received additional inquiries for possible lawsuits from California, Texas, Minnesota and Illinois.
“We have people coming to us from all over the country,” Guralnick said, anticipating several hundred more customers will add their names to the complaints that contend L.A. Fitness “failed to accommodate Bally members at their clubs” and that some L.A. Fitness clubs now are so crowded “as to deprive Bally members of the…benefits of their memberships.”
Some of those members, who paid upwards of $1200 for lifetime contracts, were informed after the deal with Fitness International that they would now face renewal fees and be limited to a single gym. Others say they were encouraged to sign contracts just days ahead of the sale and were told not to expect any change in the conditions.
The Los Angeles suit would add charges of racial discrimination to a list that in addition to consumer fraud also includes breach of contract and violation of the state health club services act.
“I am sure this wouldn’t happen in Irvine, or higher income areas,” says Guillermina Yakimowich, who has been a member of Montebello’s L.A. Fitness gym for the past 17 years. The Mexico native joined Mendoza outside the Montebello gym, which she says is just a five-minute drive from her house. “I know they have better gyms, but I can’t afford the time and the driving expense to go to a better area,” she said.
Others have complained of being turned away for membership, of a failure to give notice of pending rate increases, and a gradual decline in the number of trainers available.
“In this gym, water leaks in the steam room and overall sanitary conditions are terrible,’’ says Tony Marquez, who pays $100 a month to use the facilities at the Montebello center. “We report the problems but nothing happens,” he adds.
Calls to Fitness International for comment on the pending litigation went unreturned, though the company recently provided a membership status update on its website saying it has simplified access rules, including allowing Bally “local” members access to L.A. Fitness clubs and acquired Bally clubs.
With the November deal, L.A. Fitness now owns some 500 centers nationwide, including 40 former Bally centers in Southern California.
And while the decision to ease access rules may go some way in addressing earlier complaints, Hispanic members in Los Angeles say the problem runs much deeper.
Rosario Vigil attends the L.A. Fitness gym in the city of Alhambra, west of Los Angeles. She says the facilities at her gym are new and that the “services are good,” though she acknowledges there “may be some truth” to the complaints lodged against other centers. As an example, she notes that the gym nearer to her home in Pasadena lacks many of the features found at the Alhambra gym, including a pool.
According to members from the Latino community, the reason has to do with demographics.
“We contacted gym goers in different areas,” says Javier Rodriguez, a Bally Fitness member since 1987 and one of those filing the suit. He says based on the information gathered, “the quality of service and maintenance of the installations had much to do with the income level of the people who live in those areas.”
“This,” he added, “is why we believe there is racial profiling involved.”
Rodriguez and the others say they plan to continue with the signature gathering campaign, adding they are also hoping to bring pressure on the Los Angeles County Health Department, which they say should be responsible for enforcing hygienic and sanitary conditions at local gyms.
No date has been set for when they will file the suit.
Correction: An earlier version of this story mistated the cost of gym membership at the Montebello center as $100 a year. The correct figure is $100 a month.
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