Black Women Sue Pennsylvania Golf Course Alleging Race, Gender Discrimination

Jul 8, 2020

As we discussed in our first post of the “Golf and the Law” blog series, golf has gained a reputation as one of the most litigious sports in the country. In today’s blog, we focus on a collection of related race and gender discrimination lawsuits stemming from a series of tense encounters between a group of black women and golf course employees in Pennsylvania. Specifically, Grandview Golf Course employees called the police and eventually asked the group of black women to leave the course due to their allegedly slow pace of play, and the group claims that they were targeted due to their race and gender. Today, we will briefly summarize the key components of the women’s lawsuits and analyze several issues to watch as these cases move forward.

What Happened at Grandview Golf Course?

On April 21, 2018, a group of five African American female members of Grandview Golf Course – Myneca Ojo, Karen Crosby, Sandra Thompson, Sandra Harrison, and Carolyn Dow – set out to play the course for the first time as members. Though the course limits groups to four people, a Grandview employee allowed the five members to play together. As the group teed off at the second hole, Grandview Golf Course co-owner Steve Chronister approached the women and told them that they were playing too slowly. The group denied that their pace was improper, and Chronister called 911 to have police remove the women from the course. However, by the time Northern York County Regional Police arrived on scene, Chronister told them not to pursue the situation.

As a result of the group’s encounter with Chronister, three of the women (Crosby, Harrison, and Dow) decided not to complete the entire course. Ojo and Thompson continued to play, and just before the tenth hole, came upon another group of golfers approaching the tee. One of the men from the other group, Jerry Higgins, encouraged Ojo and Thompson to continue so his group could take a break. Despite Higgins’s consent, co-owner Jordan Chronister approached the women demanding that they not “cut people off.” A tense argument ensued, which Sandra Thompson caught on video and uploaded HERE, between Thompson and several Grandview employees.

Steve Chronister tried to refund the women’s membership fees, but Thompson and Ojo did not accept the checks. Chronister then asked the women to leave and called the police for the second time. Shortly after the situation, these women filed discrimination charges with the Pennsylvania Human Rights Commission (“PHRC”). During the PHRC’s investigative hearings in June 2018, Jerry Higgins testified that he played behind the group but they did not delay his pace of play. Importantly, Higgins even stated that he felt the women were being targeted by Grandview employees.

Approximately 19 months after these hearings, the PHRC announced that the plaintiffs had probable cause of race and gender discrimination. All five women were then issued right to sue letters, which signifies that the PHRC completed its investigation and allows the plaintiffs to move forward with filing their complaints. Following the PHRC’s involvement in this case, Steve Chronister began strongly speaking out against both the women’s allegations and against the PHRC itself. Chronister issued a full statement denying any discrimination on the part of Grandview Golf Course and questioning the ethics of the PHRC’s investigative process. During his criticism of the allegedly “corrupt” PHRC, Chronister demanded an investigation into the Commission itself, asking “[w]ho do we go to for being discriminated against by the PHRC? Who’s going to stand up for us?”

Players File Suit Claiming Race, Gender Bias

As we noted in our first blog post, most golf-related lawsuits concern personal injuries, property law, intellectual property, or contract disputes. Here, though some of the plaintiffs do assert state law contract claims, the crux of their cases is unique in this context because their key allegations are rooted in federal anti-discrimination law. Ojo and Crosby first made national news by filing suit together in Pennsylvania federal court on April 20, 2020 – approximately two years after the incident at Grandview Golf Course. The next day, Dow and Harrison filed an analogous discrimination case also in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania. Thompson, who is an attorney and President of the York NAACP, also recently started a case in the York County Court of Common Pleas (though it is unclear whether she has yet to file her complaint). When asked by Golf Digest why the women did not file suit together, they responded that “they hold different perspectives on what the outcome should be.”

Regarding the first case filed, Ojo and Crosby led the way by suing Grandview, Steve and Jordan Chronister, and three additional Grandview employees involved in the April 2018 debacle. Ojo and Crosby assert a number of supplemental state law claims in their complaint, including breach of contract, constructive fraud, tortious interference, defamation, and infliction of emotional distress. The root of the women’s complaint, though, is their claim of discrimination on the basis of race and gender. Ojo and Crosby assert discrimination counts under both federal and state law, and also claim that the defendants engaged in a conspiracy to violate their constitutional rights. The full complaint can be found HERE.

All three lawsuits are in the very early stages, so it is difficult to predict exactly how each case will transpire. However, there are a few important aspects of the PHRC hearings that may help preview the outcomes of the plaintiffs’ court cases. Specifically, the testimony of Jerry Higgins, the golfer playing behind the group, appeared to be a determinative piece of evidence in the PHRC proceedings. The willingness of Higgins (and potentially others from his group that day) to state that Grandview employees seemed to be targeting the women would serve as a great benefit to the plaintiffs’ lawsuits. Moreover, it is also important to note that the parties unsuccessfully tried to mediate their claims prior to the lawsuits being filed. According to the York Dispatch, Steve and Jordan Chronister first missed the PHRC public hearings and then ignored the Commission’s request to attend conciliation in February 2020. Four of the five women began the conciliation process by demanding $500,000 each (Ojo and Crosby later lowered their demands to $100,000 each), and Steve Chronister responded by saying “he wouldn’t pay them a dime.”

With respect to the plaintiffs’ substantive allegations, while Ojo and Crosby’s state court claims are relevant, for purposes of damages the vital issue will be the court’s determination on their discrimination claims. This is because potential damages concerning the plaintiffs’ contract-related claims would likely be limited to around the amount of their membership fees, while their discrimination claims could warrant a much higher demand. In fact, Ojo and Crosby assert their race bias claim pursuant to § 1981 of the Civil Rights Act of 1866, which has no cap on damages. Based on the hostility surrounding the PHRC proceeds, in addition to the fact that the Chronisters and Grandview boldly expressed no interest in settling these claims, it would be no surprise to see the plaintiffs’ cases be decided by a jury rather than through early dismissal or settlement.

About Coffman Law Offices, P.C.

Coffman Law is committed to providing superb legal representation for people who are suffering from severe personal injuries or are dealing with the loss of a loved one due to negligence or misconduct. Coffman Law is a small, results-driven firm focused on ensuring that clients receive the compassion, attention, and consideration that they need to seek adequate redress for injuries or loss. The firm is led by Owner and Founding Partner Brian Coffman, who has dedicated his career to helping accident victims navigate the legal system and obtain redress for their injuries. If you have been injured or lost a loved one, contact Coffman Law today for a free consultation.