Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Gym’s Trans-Affirming Policy Violates Michigan Consumer Protection Act, Court Says

Gym’s Trans-Affirming Policy Violates Michigan Consumer Protection Act, Court Says

Would you want to know if your gym was trans-affirming before you paid for your membership? Would it bother you to share a locker room with people whose biological sex was different than yours? One gym’s trans-affirming policy has been up for debate in the courts for years. Now the Michigan Court of Appeals has said that the unwritten policy could have violated the Michigan Consumer Protection Act.

Locker Rooms Become Controversial When Trans* Rights Are Involved

When it comes to gender identity and transgender individuals, bathrooms are controversial. Those opposed to LGBT-inclusive policies complain about the threat of “a man who identified as a woman” in a restroom or locker room that aligns with his or her gender identity. But what does a trans-affirming policy have to do with the Michigan Consumer Protection Act?

Woman Sues Planet Fitness for Unwritten Trans-Affirming Policy

Yvette Cormier joined Planet Fitness on January 28, 2015. One month later she encountered a transgender woman in the women’s facilities. Concerned with what she called a “man in the women’s locker room”, she went to the front desk to complain. There she was told that the gym had a trans-affirming policy that allows any member to use the facility that corresponds with his or her self-identified gender identity. Cormier called the corporate office about the issue, only to be told that Planet Fitness has a policy of not judging whether a person is a man or a woman when using its facilities. Cormier then returned to Planet Fitness several times to warn other gym users. Eventually the gym canceled her membership for causing disruption.

Cormier sued Planet Fitness – both the local franchise and the corporate entity. Among the several legal theories, she claimed Planet Fitness had violated the Michigan Consumer Protection Act (MCPA). The trial court dismissed her claims, as did the Court of Appeals. But the Michigan Supreme Court said her claims warranted closer attention and remanded the case back to the Michigan Court of Appeals for further consideration.

Michigan Consumer Protection Act Defends Consumers from Business’s Misrepresentations

The Michigan Consumer Protection Act defends against many ways businesses try to pull the wool over consumers’ eyes. However, in most cases the law removes intent. While many consumer protection initiatives are targeting businesses that are intentionally manipulating consumers for their own benefit, the law allows lawsuits when merchants unintentionally, even accidentally, violate the MCPA. 

Does an Unwritten Trans-Affirming Policy Violate the MCPA?

In this case, Cormier said Planet Fitness violated the MCPA by:

  • Advertising services without intending to provide them
  • Causing confusion or misunderstanding of a legal right, obligation, or remedy
  • Causing consumers to waive rights, benefits, or immunities
  • Making different oral and written statements
  • Failing to reveal a material fact which misleads consumers
  • Making a consumer believe a material fact is different than it actually is

The Court of Appeals quickly disregarded claims relating to Cormier’s legal rights and remedies. It said that there was no conflict between the oral and written statements of the company. Nor could the fact that Cormier disagreed with the way the gym identified men and women amount to misleading advertising. 

However, the court could not so easily dispose of the claims relating to material facts. When Cormier joined the gym, its representative said that the gym had separate restrooms and locker rooms for men and women. The representative did not say how admission to these facilities would be monitored – by gender identity or biological sex. The court said, given Cormier’s response to learning about the gym’s trans-affirming policy, that distinction could be viewed as “important to the transaction.” If Cormier knew that trans women would be permitted to share her locker room, she would likely not have purchased the gym membership.

Ultimately, it was not Planet Fitness’s trans-affirming policy that violated the MCPA. However, the court said the fact that the company did not clarify its definition of “woman” may have been an omission of a material fact that caused a consumer to enter into a transaction she otherwise wouldn’t have, making the unwritten and undisclosed policy a violation of Michigan consumer protection laws.

Dani K. Liblang is a consumer protection attorney at the Liblang Law Firm, PC, in Birmingham, Michigan. She helps consumers who are manipulated into contracts they wouldn’t otherwise agree to. If you have been lied to by a service provider, contact the Liblang Law Firm for a free consultation.

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