Soldier worked up over workout charges

David Yates May 24, 2007, 9:00am

Seemingly American Express and Bally Total Fitness have confused the maxim "Support your Troops" with "fraudulently forge an officer's signature and charge his credit card for nearly three grand while he's deployed overseas."

A hundred miles from his Beaumont home and one week before he deployed to Uzbekistan, Army Lt. Col. Bryan Lawson paid a visit to a Houston Bally's gym. To the colonel's "astonishment," a $5 transaction for a quick calisthenics session has progressed into a $2,853.96 debt.

After several years of fruitless negotiations with the gym and credit card company, the Iraq veteran finally filed a deceptive trade practices lawsuit against American Express, Bally's and one of the gym's employees, Ray Voss.

His petition was filed with the Jefferson County District Court on May 23. Judge Donald Floyd, 172nd Judicial District, has been assigned to the case.

According to Lawson's suit, on April 19, 2003, he told a Bally's employee, supposedly Voss, he was from out of town and wanted to workout for the day. Col. Lawson presented his American Express card to the employee and purchased a $5 one-day pass.

"Subsequently, and without warning, Lawson's knowledge or consent, a Bally's employee believed to be Voss filled out a three-year 'Ultra Personal Training' membership contract in (the colonel's) name, forged his signature and (charged his card)," the suit said.

Lawson, who hasn't had an opportunity to enjoy his 'Ultra' membership since he's been deployed numerous times over the last four years and lives in Beaumont – not Houston – when he is not serving his country, says he and his wife have pleaded with the companies to no avail.

A few weeks after the colonel deployed to Uzbekistan, Lawson's wife was "shocked" to find the Bally's charge on the couples' credit card statement. She contacted American Express – and despite the misinformation on the contract – the company denied her claim and forwarded her a copy of the fraudulent contract, the suit said.

Upon Mrs. Lawson's inspection of (the contract), "it became clear the (colonel's) signature was forged," the suit said.

"Further, the only correct information contained in the document was Lawson's name, credit card number, and social security number. All other identifying information, including date of birth, street address, home phone number, work number, driver's license number, alternate ID type and emergency contact information were incorrect, having been completely fabricated by the Bally's employee," the suit added.

American Express made no attempt to verify the signature, the suit said. Mrs. Lawson attempted to explain to the credit company that "it would be preposterous for her husband to purchase a membership to a health spa located 100 miles from their home one week before he deployed…but American Express ignored both the logic and veracity of her explanation."

In the ensuing months, she relentlessly explained the situation to the credit company. In one conversation with "a noticeably embarrassed American Express employee," the company representative informed her American Express would not pursue the claim any further "because Bally's was an important client," the suit said.

A year later, while at home on a brief leave stint, Lawson contacted American Express to resolve the matter. The company informed him his card had been canceled, and that he had been reported to a debt collection agency, the suit said. "By forging the membership contract…Bally's was the cause of this course of action undertaken by American Express."

The colonel also drove to the Houston Bally's during his leave trip, but its "employees, however, refused to cooperate or even show him a copy of the purported contract," the suit said.

Throughout the entire four-year time period that Lt. Col. Lawson has been stationed in Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, Qatar and now Iraq, Mrs. Lawson has received numerous unpleasant phone calls and letters from various "screaming" debt collectors demanding immediate payment and threatening to sue and ruin the couples' credit score, the suit said.

After several unsuccessful attempts to collect the full amount, Bally's contacted the couple with a settlement offer of $1,500, the suit said. "The Lawsons refused this extortion attempt."

When the colonel returned from a two-year long deployment from Southeast Asia, he hired attorney Millard Johnson of the Johnson Deluca Kennedy & Kurisky law firm.

Lawson's 10-count lawsuit faults the defendants with civil conspiracy, negligent misrepresentation, libel, breach of contract and tortuous interference with an existing contract.

He is demanding a trial by jury and is suing for relief and court costs.

Case No. E179-362

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