Updated, Nov. 30: An earlier version of this article said that Boca Ciega Yacht Club leases the building and land from the City of Gulfport for $1/year. Since the summer, BCYC has paid $2,000 per month in rent. The version you read below reflects the update, and we apologize for the error.
A tentative settlement agreement has been reached in the legal fight over an American with Disabilities Act (ADA) claim involving a woman who says her bee-killing service dog was denied entry into the Boca Ciega Yacht Club (BCYC).
The Gulfport-based yacht club and Samantha Ring, who says she’s allergic to bee stings, held a mediation session Wednesday, Nov. 16, and have reached a tentative settlement of their dispute, according to Marcy LaHart, an attorney representing Ring.
LaHart said details of the agreement could not yet be disclosed. The federal ADA lawsuit filed by Ring is being put on hold while the settlement is being finalized. The lawsuit would then be dismissed after finalization, LaHart said.
BCYC is a nonprofit located in Gulfport; until this summer, it leased its waterfront space from the City of Gulfport for $1 a year (as do other nonprofits leasing from the city). Since this summer, BCYC has paid $2,000 per month in rent on a month-to-month basis. The city gets boat slip revenue from yacht club members as part of the lease deal.
Ring, a middle school teacher, filed an ADA lawsuit against the yacht club in 2019 alleging she was denied entry because of her dog, Piper.
Ring, who had been a member of the boat and sailing club since 2007, says she is allergic to bees and the dog kills bees. Court documents say Piper has vanquished bees to protect Ring “on seven separate occasions.”
BCYC says it does not allow animals on its premises, and its commodore denied Ring’s request for a service dog exemption, according to court documents. Ring wanted to bring her dog to the club, the case alleges, but was fined by the club and then had her membership suspended and then revoked.
That prompted a federal lawsuit claiming an ADA violation for denying a service dog entry. The American with Disabilities Act was passed in 1990 offering legal protections to those with disabilities — including use and access for individuals with service dogs.
Attorneys for the BCYC argue the Gulfport group is a private club and enjoys exemptions from ADA and applicable state laws.
“Both the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Florida Civil Rights Act include exceptions for private clubs,” according to court documents.
A federal trial court agreed with the yacht club’s “private club” argument. U.S. District Court Judge Virginia Covington also dismissed a retaliation claim brought by Ring alleging she was mistreated by the club because of her dog and ADA efforts. Ring’s attorneys appealed those rulings. The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta in July upheld the lower court’s retaliation ruling, but sent the decision that BCYC is a private club and not subject to the ADA back to the lower court.
The mediation and settlement were reached after the appeals court ruling. The appeals court pointed to public, community and youth events hosted by BCYC and its open membership rules as working against its private club argument.
“The record contains substantial evidence that the Club fails to ensure the seclusion of its members on much of its property and often fails to do so even in its clubhouse. Strangers often mix with members in the clubhouse, and the Club embraces the presence of non-members at social events and even governance meetings. The Club’s membership criteria are lax, and it appears from the record that any member of the public who is interested in boating and able to pass a criminal background check is almost guaranteed acceptance,” the appeals court said in its ruling.
Before the settlement deal, the federal trial court in Tampa was slated to reconsider the yacht club’s defense and Ring’s ADA violation claim. Ring’s dog has been one of the unique facets of the lawsuit.
LaHart, who specializes in animal-related cases, said service dogs and animals are not required to be certified or licensed in Florida or other states under the ADA.
BCYC officials and counsel did not respond to requests for comment on the mediation or the ADA case.
LaHart also wanted to see the City of Gulfport take a stand in the lawsuit since the BCYC leases municipal land.
“I am disappointed that the City of Gulfport has not stepped in and told the BCYC (that) they are not operating a private club,” she said. The city is not named as a defendant in the suit.
Gulfport City Manager Jim O’Reilly said “it is the city’s policy not to comment on pending litigation.”