Suit against Bally Fitness moves to federal court

David Yates Jul. 17, 2007, 10:21am

In May, the Record reported on an Iraq Army veteran who was "worked up" over what he claims were fraudulent charges for a workout. On July 2, Army Lt. Col. Bryan Lawson's lawsuit against Bally Fitness and American Express was plucked from Judge Floyd's 172nd District Court and seated in federal court.

Judge Heartfiled, U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Texas, will now preside over the case.

The case began several years ago, when Lawson was one week away from deployment to Uzbekistan and made a visit to a Bally fitness center in Houston. He paid for a $5 one-day guest pass at the gym using his American Express card.

To the colonel's astonishment, a $5 transaction for a quick workout session has progressed into a $2,853.96 debt. Lawson was charged for a three-year contract with Bally, a transaction he said he never wanted or authorized.

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

His original petition was filed with the Jefferson County District Court on May 23 where it was assigned to 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.

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.

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.

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