Miller Barondess’ Role in Sean Connery Legal Dispute

Miller Barondess’ Role in Sean Connery Legal Dispute

Teed Off: Membership spat lands Connery, Murdock in the rough

By Drew Combs

July 23, 2007

Sean Connery, the acclaimed actor, has played many roles over his career, including an aging Robin Hood who returns to Sherwood Forest to fight old battles and challenge injustices.

Connery, the accomplished amateur golfer, is currently fighting what he believes is an injustice by Sherwood Country Club.

In a lawsuit scheduled to go to trial in two weeks, Sir Sean Connery, as he is referred to in the complaint, is seeking $1 million in damages from the Thousand Oaks club which he alleges reneged on an agreement allowing him to resell his discounted membership to the country club at close to market value, which Connery claims is about $500,000.

Why the country club is reluctant to buy back the membership is unclear; representatives of the country club would not talk.

“I am somewhat surprised to be gearing up for trial,” said Connery’s attorney Skip Miller, who originally filed the lawsuit but has not been involved in the case until recently. “I thought this would have settled by now but I got a call a few weeks ago from Sean Connery’s business lawyer asking me to take the case.”

Sherwood Country Club along with a surrounding community of multimillion-dollar homes was the brainchild of billionaire David Murdock, who was also the club’s first member. Since the Jack Nicklaus-designed course first opened in 1989, Sherwood has emerged as one of Southern California’s premier country clubs with several celebrity members including professional hockey player Wayne Gretzky and musician Kenny G.

Additionally, Sherwood’s profile has been boosted in recent years because it is home to the annual Target World Challenge featuring Tiger Woods and other professional golfers.

But back in 1990, when Woods was playing in amateur tournaments and Sherwood was attempting to establish itself, Connery purchased a membership at the discounted price of $35,000. According to the complaint, the going rate for a membership in 1990 was $50,000.

“Sherwood is pretty far out there, but it was built to be a very sophisticated and classy club so it needed to attract wealthy people,” said Larry Iser, an avid golfer and Los Angeles-based attorney familiar with publicity rights but not involved in the case. “It was a terrific deal for Sherwood to get someone like Connery.”

According to the complaint, Sherwood took full advantage of the marketing benefits related to having Connery as a member.

“They took people by his locker and bragged about the fact that Sean Connery was a member,” Miller said.

Country club agreements routinely include clauses allowing memberships to be sold back to the club, but these agreements also contain clauses putting limitations on those transactions.

For example, some club agreements stipulate that five new memberships must be sold before a departing member can receive money for their membership, said Z. Gordon Davidson, who specializes in appraising golf properties and country club memberships.

Connery’s complaint states that his agreement with the club allowed him to resell his membership for “80 percent of going rate.”

Connery’s attempt to sell his membership in 2004 was rebuffed by the club. According to the complaint, the going rate for membership at the club was at least $500,000.

Connery filed suit against the country club and related entities last year, alleging breach of contract and unjust enrichment based on the use of his name to market memberships at the club and surrounding real state developments. He is seeking $500,000 in damages for each claim.

“Sherwood refuses to honor the contract and they used the celebrity of one of the greatest actors of all time to attract people to join the club,” Miller said.

Janet Welsh, vice president and controller of Sherwood Development Co., did not return calls seeking comment. The law firm Cox Castle & Nicholson, which has represented the country club in the suit, also declined to comment.

But in a response to the initial complaint, Sherwood argues that, among other things, Connery’s claims are barred because of his “unclean hands” and the governing document of the club.

Attorney Edward Smilow, who has served as an expert witness in cases involving the golf industry, said it is not uncommon for disagreements to arise between clubs and departing members.

“The bylaws of the organization place restrictions on resigning the membership,” Smilow said. “This sometimes leads to questions of whether the club is dealing fairly with members who are trying to leave.”

Iser added that a country club membership is “not a security” nor is it “readily marketable,” which is why it is easy for these types of disagreements to arise.

But it is rare for the disputes to grow into full blown lawsuits, golf industry experts said.

“I have been in the business 15 years and I have not encountered where a member sues to recapture the initial value of the membership,” Davidson said.

Despite mediation efforts, Connery and Sherwood have been unable to resolve the case.

Davidson speculated that part of the disagreement could rise from Connery’s valuation of a membership at the club.

“I think $500,000 seems high,” he said. “I just completed an analysis of all the high-end clubs in the Coachella Valley and the highest initial membership fee was $300,000.”

While this case involves an elite country club, a billionaire and a movie star, Iser said it has much more in common with a typical contract dispute than it does with some flashy Hollywood right of publicity claim.

“The publicity claim they are making seems a bit contrived because that is part of the contract and there is a two-year statute of limitations for those claims,” Iser said. “Really, what you have here is a breach of contract case.”

The trial is scheduled to begin in Los Angeles Superior Court on Aug. 6.