Gym seeks arbitration in soldier's suit over workout contract

David Yates Sep. 10, 2008, 3:00pm

In May 2007, the Southeast Texas Record reported on an Iraq war veteran who was "worked up" over what he claims were fraudulent charges for a workout.

Since it has been filed, Army Lt. Col. Bryan Lawson's lawsuit against Bally Fitness and American Express has bounced between Judge Floyd's 172nd District Court and federal court.

On Sept. 12, Floyd will entertain a motion from Bally to compel arbitration.

The case began several years ago, when Lawson, who was one week away from deployment to Uzbekistan, 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 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, he filed a deceptive trade practices lawsuit against American Express, Bally's and one of the gym's employees, Ray Voss.

According to Lawson's suit, on April 19, 2003, he told a Bally's employee, allegedly Voss, he was from out of town and wanted to workout for the day. 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 alleged 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.

Case No. E0179-362

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