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Saturday, March 2, 2024
March 2, 2024

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These members say LA Fitness misled them into signing up for long-term personal training contracts


John Chappelear and his friend Jeff Gordon say they were adamant when they told the LA Fitness personal trainer that Gordon could not afford a yearlong personal training program for $5,280.

Gordon, 77, had accompanied Chappelear to the chain’s Delray Beach, Florida, location last spring after signing up for a free membership through the Medicare-sponsored SilverSneakers program.

But club employees had other ideas for Gordon, Chappelear said in an interview.

“Within an hour of entering the gym, they had funneled us to a personal trainer sales rep who attempted to sell us a one-year personal training program,” Chappelear said.

Gordon asked if he could sign up for just a month so he could learn how to use the equipment, Chappelear said.

After the men resisted a lengthy sales pitch, they got up to leave, he said. That’s when the trainer “looked us in the eyes and said, “OK, I’m going to make an exception and give you a 30-day contract,’” Chappelear said.

Gordon had left his wallet in the car and Chappelear, 80, agreed to put the $440 cost on his credit card.

A month later, Chappelear said he noticed a charge for a second month of personal training.

That’s when he realized that despite the trainer’s assurances, Gordon had been signed up to the yearlong contract the two men had repeatedly rejected, Chappelear said.

Chappelear is one of a long line of consumers who have leveled complaints that trainers working for the fitness giant mislead customers into thinking that they are signing up for short-term personal training programs, then tell them that their hands are tied after the customers discover that they were signed up for contracts lasting six months or a year.

If they fail to cancel within a three-day recision period required by state law, getting out of the contract requires paying half of the cost of the unused months. In Gordon’s case, half the cost of his 11 remaining months at $440 a month would have totaled $2,420.

Similar tales are recounted in news reports across parts of the United States and Canada, in complaints to the Better Business Bureau, to the Florida Attorney General and to the state’s Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, which regulates fitness clubs.

The complaints do not reflect how a majority of LA Fitness members attending more than 100 Florida clubs feel about their enrollments, says Rob Bryant, senior vice president of the legal department of Fitness International LLC, the company that owns LA Fitness and its sister brand Esporta Fitness.

Bryant declined to address all but one of the individual complaints shared by the South Florida Sun Sentinel, but said by email, “Of course, with more than 100 locations in Florida alone and many customers, LA Fitness receives consumer complaints.”

Still, he said, “We believe the vast majority of our customers are happy, and, when we receive a complaint, we make sure a regional or corporate manager personally calls the customer to try to address their concern.”

Bryant submitted a list of “protections we have in place to help make sure our customers ‘do’ understand the terms of their (personal training) programs.”

The protections include giving patrons a printed copy of a written agreement and a separate checklist that they sign and initial in several places attesting they understand terms of the contract, including that they have three days to cancel and get a refund and, if they want to cancel later, the opt-out clause requiring members to pay half the cost of their unused contract term.

Contracts prompt similar complaints to state agencies

Kylie Mason, spokeswoman for the Florida Attorney General’s Office, says consumers have filed 50 complaints about LA Fitness since September 2020 about subjects ranging from “membership issues and cancellation requests to complaints about closing times.”

“When appropriate,” the office reaches out to fitness clubs for response and resolution, she said.

West Palm Beach resident Michael Walters wrote in January that he asked about a sign offering “complimentary assessments” at the chain’s Wellington branch.

He said he was offered a deal that provided four sessions for $195 and gave his credit card to pay for it. “Then in February, I was surprised to see another payment to LA Fitness for $195,” he said. He said when the company tried to make a withdrawal again in March, he reported it to his credit card company.

The salesperson who sold him the contract, who identified himself as the “director of personal training,” never mentioned that the contract was for a full year or that he would be billed every month, Walters wrote.

Walters wrote that he returned to the club and was told that the only way he could get out of the contract was to pay half of the $2,340 full-year charge.

LA Fitness canceled his contract “with no further billing or obligations,” after the Attorney General’s Office “escalated the conflict to the company,” Mason said.

Bryant said each complaint submitted to the Florida Attorney General, the Florida Department of Consumer Services, and the Better Business Bureau is “automatically received by our corporate office” and reviewed.

“In each case, we look into the complaint, we attempt to contact the customer, we try to resolve the matter, and we respond to the referring agency (without any need for the agency to ‘escalate’ the matter),” Bryant said.

“In the rare situation where our investigation reveals any failures by our employees to follow our policies, such conduct is not rewarded, but rather could lead to discipline or termination,” he said.

Bryant did not address four of the five consumer complaints, including Chappelear’s, sent to him by the South Florida Sun Sentinel.

But he shared results of the company’s investigation into one of the complaints — Walter’s — to explain that “there are always two sides to every story.”

Walters, “although he said he was surprised when he was billed in February,” continued his personal training sessions through March and early April — well beyond the single month he said he signed up for, Bryant said.

Walters did not respond to an email seeking comment about his complaint.

The Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services received 83 complaints about Fitness International clubs in Florida in the three years since Oct. 5, 2020, according to data provided by department spokeswoman Jessica Kelleher.

Complaint categories include contract breach disputes (9), billing and refund disputes (15), cancellations not honored (7), misrepresentation (6), and complaints involving personal trainers (10).

Among those who complained about personal trainer contracts, Sttefani Vanessa Danh said she signed up for six months of weightlifting sessions for $600 a month at a Miami LA Fitness and was told she could cancel at any time. She said she later found out that she signed a 12-month agreement and would have to pay half of the $7,200 cost if she wanted to cancel.

Club managers, who were “super nice” before she signed up, “started treating me rude” when she came back with questions, she said in an interview.

The trainer who enrolled her into the personal training contract “told me I was lying (and) that she didn’t tell me anything I was saying,” Danh said. “She said I signed a contract. I went home and felt horrible.”

After submitting complaints to the state and Better Business Bureau, she received a call from LA Fitness’ California office, she said.

Eventually, she was allowed to quit by paying $1,000, she said. Along with the initial $600 she paid when she signed up for her classes and a second $600 that was charged to her credit card a month later, “I paid $2,200 for three training sessions,” she said.

In November, Destiny Henry signed up for a complimentary fitness assessment at an LA Fitness in Wellington, according to her complaint to the department.

The “director of personal training” told her he needed to have her credit card number on file “in case I did want to proceed with training,” her complaint stated, adding, “He explained as long as I called within 14 days to cancel, I was under no obligation to use these personal training services.”

She said the following day, she called and said she did not want any personal training and asked to have her credit card number removed from the company’s files. She called multiple times, she said, “only to be told I had to come in and train first before canceling.”

Finally, the trainer told her he was unable to cancel the service and only “corporate” could do it, her complaint stated.

In his complaint to the department, Kevin Perez said he agreed to pay $440 per month for personal training at a Tampa LA Fitness club last November but was unaware he was signing a yearlong contract “and instead thought I was simply signing liability release waivers.”

When he decided to stop training two months later, he said, “I confronted the training manager about this and he said there was nothing he could do about it.”

Perez contacted LA Fitness’ customer service line, “and they said I would have to perform a ‘buyout’ from my contract.”

The department has not responded to questions about how Henry’s and Perez’s complaints were resolved, and Henry and Perez couldn’t be reached to describe how the matter was concluded.

‘His printer was not working’

The protections outlined by LA Fitness’ Bryant include requiring each customer enrolling in a personal training program to review a written agreement and sign or initial in several paces “to acknowledge their understanding, including an acknowledgement of the length of the initial term.”

Chappelear said he wasn’t provided a printed copy of the contract to take home and read. The trainer who signed him and Gordon up “told us his printer was not working,” Chappelear said.

Then the trainer said he had the contract on his computer and directed Gordon to “simply click at the places he pointed to,” Chappelear said.

“The clicking went on and on over numerous boxes with only a small portion of the contract visible on the computer screen at any one time,” he said.

Another protection cited by Bryant is an “easy-to-read checklist summarizing key terms (including, among other things, the duration, payment, renewal and cancellation terms).” Each customer is required to initial each item and sign at the bottom, he said.

Chappelear said he remembered Gordon being shown sections of the agreement on the computer screen and being told to initial or sign them.

“I don’t deny that they have tons of paperwork they tell you to sign, and then put all the stuff on the screen and say, ‘Sign here and sign there,’” Chappelear said. “I guarantee he didn’t say, ‘Initial here that says you’re signing up for a year.’ “

Chappelear says that after he saw the second month’s charge on his credit card account, he returned to the Delray Beach LA Fitness and talked to the personal trainer who signed Gordon to the contract. “He said, ‘Oh no, you signed a one-year contract.’ “

He says he next called the company’s headquarters in California. “They said there was nothing they could do,” he said.

It wasn’t until they visited the club a third time after signing up that they were able to get a printed copy of the contract, Chappelear said.

Enacting consumer protections

In 1990, Florida enacted the Health Studio Act, which required gyms to register with the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, and gave patrons some extra protections, including letting them quit a gym membership if no club was available within five miles from their home.

Other protections enacted under Florida’s Health Studio Act included a three-year cap on contract terms and a requirement to allow cancellation if a patron dies or becomes physically unable to use the facilities.

There’s no provision barring clubs from requiring customers who want to quit to pay half the cost of their remaining contract term.

In 2003, the first franchised Planet Fitness location opened in Florida. Offering easily cancelable $10 monthly memberships, the chain spawned imitators like YouFit and grew to around 2,400 clubs in seven countries.

LA Fitness, founded in 1984, gradually expanded to more than 700 locations in the U.S. and Canada by purchasing other brands, including Bally Total Fitness, and offering monthly memberships with no penalty for canceling.

But while loosening requirements for regular memberships, LA Fitness and some other chains set up personal training contracts that some consumers complained were difficult to escape.

In 2016, Boston’s CBS affiliate, WBZ-TV, documented complaints from members of an LA Fitness club in Stoughton, Massachusetts, who said they were assured they were signing contracts for limited periods, then found that monthly charges continued beyond the amount of time to which they had agreed.

The station reported finding nine complaints to the Massachusetts Attorney General’s Office alleging “nearly identical deceptive practices” at the Stoughton location.

Chain officials denied that the company conducts business as the story described and said they found no evidence of deception at the Stoughton club, the station reported. But they agreed to refund money paid by a Milton woman who said she was assured she was signing up for just a month of personal training, the story said.

A Tempe, Arizona, college student sued LA Fitness in 2012 claiming he accepted a free fitness assessment and was asked to sign a waiver, then later found out his signature was copied to the company’s form for personal training services, according to a news article in the Arizona Republic newspaper. LA Fitness’ attorney denied the claims, the story said.

His case was later settled, Maricopa County, Arizona, court records show.

In a 2019 undercover investigation, Los Angeles-area TV station KCAL sent a reporter into three area LA Fitness clubs after several viewers complained that they were signed up for yearlong training contracts they didn’t expect. Sales representatives at two of the locations would not allow the reporter to take home contracts to review, the station said.

Bryant said that LA Fitness’ additional protections include equipping sales desks with secondary, customer-facing monitors “to afford customers the best opportunity to review their agreements directly as they sign and initial it.”

“We ask customers to sign by way of a signature pad that explicitly advises customers to review their agreements before signing,” he said.

Also, he said, “It’s our policy and practice to provide every member with a hard copy of their (personal training) agreement at the time of sale and to offer a version by email if the member provides an email address.”

Walters, the West Palm Beach resident, wrote to the Florida Attorney General’s Office that “I have never received a paper or electronic copy of the personal training contract.”

Gordon did not receive a copy of the contract, Chappelear said, because the trainer who signed him up on his computer said the club’s printer was down.

Bryant said, “It’s conceivable, of course, that a printer could temporarily go out in one of our 100+ Florida clubs. However, we have not heard from members that this is a frequent or recurring problem or anything else to indicate this happens regularly.”

While Walters said he wasn’t provided a copy of the personal trainer agreement, Bryant said “our records confirm that, at a minimum, he was sent a copy of his PT (personal training) agreement to the email address he provided at enrollment.”

LA Fitness not only health club fending off complaints

Other gyms are also subjects of complaints to state consumer protection agencies and the Better Business Bureau.

Long lists of unhappy customers in Florida have filed reports about billing and collection practices. Most say their gyms make it difficult to quit memberships, while gyms counter that members were notified of cancellation terms when they joined.

Multiple members complained that they were charged monthly membership or personal training fees after they canceled, or that their canceled accounts showed up on their credit reports as past due. Gyms responded that the members didn’t closely read the terms of their contracts, which typically require 30 days’ notice of cancellation.

Some complaining members contrasted the efficiency of the sign-up process with nonchalance that greets their requests to cancel.

In a complaint to the Better Business Bureau about an LA Fitness competitor, one member said, “This gym is all about trying to make money and get people to sign up for things and charging ridiculous amounts but when it comes to canceling/freezing memberships, that same urgency is not executed.”

Canceling a membership

LA Fitness offers a termination fee that “is not a penalty.” Rather, Bryant said, “it is an option” that allows a member to cancel their personal training agreement “without having to pay the full amount the member agreed, in writing, to pay,” while also “encouraging the member to stick with their PT agreement — and see the results of the training.”

Members who express an interest in personal training are given a choice to purchase “a small set of individual sessions, a six-month term or a 12-month term,” Bryant said.

“But like many products/services, by purchasing a plan with a longer term, the client is able to lock in a reduced monthly price,” he said. “Plus, they are guaranteed to keep that lower rate if they decide to continue after the initial term (when they can cancel at any time without any additional fee).”

Bryant said that the chain’s “best advertisement for our personal training services is for our client to have great results from their program and recommend it to their family and friends.”

But to get those best results normally involves commitment to a program “over time, not just for a few sessions.”

“For that reason, we do recommend that clients purchase the six-month or 12-month package at the lower monthly rate, rather than buy just a few sessions at a time,” he said.

“Also, PT is much more than simply showing people how to use equipment. It’s about guiding people through workouts, varying those workouts, and keeping them engaged and motivated among other things.”

Walk away if printed contract unavailable, attorney says

Miami attorney Claudia Cobreiro said she has helped friends get out of onerous fitness club contracts, but acknowledges that few hire attorneys or file lawsuits over the contracts, because those fees would quickly exceed the amount of money in dispute.

Cobreiro says the most important way to avoid getting into a contract they will later regret is to demand a paper copy of anything they’re being asked to sign — and read it carefully before putting their name on it.

“If you’re not allowed to read it, that’s a red flag,” she said.

She said corporations that run gyms don’t necessarily support misleading customers into signing up for contracts. Instead, employees responsible for selling training packages “are not as educated as they need to be.”

Consumers, she said, aren’t as educated either about their need to understand contract terms before signing. Don’t take anyone’s word for anything, she says.

“If you don’t see it in black and white, then you shouldn’t sign,” she said.

For those who feel they were misled into signing up for long-term personal training contracts at LA Fitness or Esporta Fitness, submitting written complaints to state authorities or Better Business Bureau’s website can be an effective way to get results.

Complaints visible on Better Business Bureau’s site are typically followed with statements from the company that they allowed the customer to cancel.

After Chappelear contacted the South Florida Sun Sentinel with his complaint about Gordon’s long-term contract, Gordon received a letter from the chain stating that his request to cancel his yearlong personal training contract had been granted.

Chappelear said he wasn’t sure what prompted the turnabout. “Maybe it was the nicely worded letter I sent to the company’s general counsel,” he said.