A Tale As Old As Time
It’s not a new story – you join a new gym, pay a down payment, go for a little while, and then stop going but still have a monthly charge made to your charge card. Maybe work picks up and you just can’t make it, or the weather becomes nice and you decide to run outside instead of at the gym, but you take breaks from the gym while still paying that membership you’re not using.
Eventually you decide to leave and you’re told you can’t. Well, not without paying huge cancellation fees. The manager points out that your contract says you have to be dead, or have lost a leg, or moved to Newfoundland. This can’t be legal, can it?
Yes, it’s totally legal for them to do that.
Joining the Rebel Alliance
Does this mean you can’t cancel your gym membership without paying all these fees? Oh goodness no. Just like they have these legal protections to own you for a number of years, they also have legal obligations to protect you. The funny thing is gyms often forget about the “protecting you” part, and that’s how I’m going to show you how to get out of your gym membership for free. (NOTE: This works in Massachusetts. If you are not in Massachusetts, there is a good chance your state has similar laws, I just haven’t looked them up for you.)
Come join the fitness Rebel Alliance!
Choose Your Weapon
The first thing you need to do is find that section of state law chock-filled with legal weapons you can use against the gym. Here in Massachusetts, that would be Massachusetts General Laws Chapter 93, which covers the regulation and trade of certain enterprises. There’s stuff in there you don’t need, like regulations on stamp collecting, coin-operated laundromats, and hearing aid stores.
The laws regarding gyms, or “fitness clubs,” are covered in sections 78 through 89. You’ll find the laws protecting the gym owner and those horrible contracts in sections 80, 81, and 82. Yes, section 82 does include language saying you have to move more than 25 miles away from any affiliated gym in order to cancel your membership.
BUT – there are a whole bunch of things your gym has to do in order to be considered fair. Section 84, titled “Unfair and Deceptive Trade Practices,” details the things a gym must do, or else they are considered to be purposely deceiving you. And trust me, they are deceiving you – and this is the weapon you’re going to use to get out of your unfair contract.
Posting the Membership Fees
Every club is required by section 84 to clearly state things about the gym, such as the location(s) of the gym, the equipment they offer, experience and qualifications of its staff, and more. But about halfway into this section there is a wonderful little protection there for you:
It is hereby declared to be an unfair and deceptive trade practice in violation of chapter ninety-three A for a seller, or his agents, employees or other representatives to fail to clearly and conspicuously post on its health club premises all of its courses and membership prices, discounts, sales or offers;
That’s right, your gym is required to have a sign hanging up in a conspicuous place listing how much a monthly membership costs, and any other promotions that may change that amount. I have never seen a gym that does this.
Why No Sign?
Why does your gym not have a sign? Very simply, gyms offer promotional rates all the time to get new members in the door. Maybe it’s a limited-time offer, maybe it’s a new corporate discount, maybe it’s just because the new member was a hard sell and they gave him a better rate simply because he negotiated better than you did.
The point is, gyms don’t post these rates because if they did, everybody would know they were paying too much. There is always somebody at the gym paying less than you. The gym is, quite legally, fleecing you of this extra money. Ask a gym employee to see a sign of their rates and promotions – if they can’t, this is your weapon.
The best thing you can do at this point is try to find another member who is paying less than you. Ask around. Post the question on Facebook or Twitter. You don’t need to know that someone is paying less in order to make this work, but you can actually ask for money back when you cancel if you can find proof that somebody is paying less than you are.
Striking Back Against the Empire
Once you notice there is no sign with the posted monthly rates, you are required to write the gym a letter. At least 30 days before you take any legal action, you have to provide your written request to the gym (send this via certified mail please, in case you need evidence in court you sent them this letter). This letter should say a few things.
First, request in your letter that they cancel your membership. Note that since they have failed to post monthly rates, your contract is void under section 85. Be clear that you are requesting your membership be canceled on that very day you write the letter, and print the date specifically so there is no question.
Next, request any monetary damages you feel you may have incurred as part of their unfair and deceptive business practices. This is where having proof of others paying less than you comes in handy. For example, if you’re paying $29/month, and you find out other members have been paying $19/month for the last year, demand $120 in damages (the difference you were overpaying for that year).
Lastly, clearly state that you are writing this letter as you are legally required to do so at least 30 days before you file a civil complaint with the local court. Let them know that you will indeed file if they don’t rectify the problem within 30 days.
Chances are you’re going to get a call from an angry gym manager. He’ll rant and rave, but you’re going to get your membership canceled, you can count on that. He may even want to play Let’s Make A Deal and offer you some money to walk away.
But in the off chance he wants a fight, no sweat – let him know he’s playing with fire, and is going to get burned. MGL Chapter 93A allows a judge to award you up to three times the damages you requested, meaning if you take the gym to court, when they lose, the judge may award you triple (legally “treble”) what you asked for.
So tell that gym manager he can do what you asked, or pay even more later on, his call.
You can also call your local district attorney, as there are probably other violations the gym has made. You can also talk to other gym members and find others overpaying their fees and file a class action lawsuit. And, of course, don’t forget your local newspapers and media outlets – they may be interested in running a story about a predatory gym.
Don’t Forget the Goal
The one thing to not forget here is that your original goal was simply to cancel your membership without paying fees. Just because you can sue for damages doesn’t mean you should. Filing with the court costs money, and the gym can file against you if they feel they have done nothing wrong. If you are going to file a civil suit against your gym, absolutely talk to a lawyer first! The last thing you want to do is kick the bee’s nest and get stung.
Good luck, and when you get out of your gym membership, be sure to find another outlet to get your workouts done – you still need to stay healthy, right?