WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. (CN) — Golf legend Jack Nicklaus faces a lawsuit from the former president of his upscale golf club community, who claims Nicklaus ousted and blackballed him from exclusive Florida country clubs in retaliation for objecting to the community’s dictatorial management.
Gary Sellers, a corporate attorney, says he lived a content life in the luxurious Bear’s Club community in Jupiter, Florida, for 16 years until he butted heads with Nicklaus, a 73-time PGA Tour champ who helped develop the community and design its renowned golf course.
Sellers claims in Palm Beach County Court that Nicklaus removed him from his long-held position as the community association’s president after he questioned decisions by the association, which was controlled by Bear’s Club Founding Partners, a development company aligned with the Nicklaus family.
The last straw came in late 2018, according to the complaint, when Sellers wrote a letter to Palm Beach County, informing it that he had not been apprised of the Bear’s Club’s proposed land swap with the county involving termination of an environmental easement.
Sellers, who paired his 28-page filing with 33 pages of supporting documents, says the Nicklaus family’s web of organizations became incensed that Sellers stuck his nose in the matter. The county ultimately deferred its September 2018 vote on the land swap after county staff recommended against it and local residents expressed opposition.
Sellers was removed as the Bear’s Club community president in November 2018.
According to the lawsuit, Sellers had been a thorn in Nicklaus’ side long before the land swap controversy.
Among other grievances, he had openly questioned why he and other homeowners were assigned more than two-thirds of the association’s expenses, while Bear’s Club Founding Partners had retained majority voting power since the community’s inception in the late 1990s. Sellers claimed increases to the homeowners’ share of the expenses over the years were executed in violation of Florida homeowner association laws.
In addition to being ousted as community president, Sellers says, he was kicked out of the Bear’s Club country club and was blackballed from another country club where Nicklaus is an honorary member.
He seeks damages for defamation, conspiracy, conversion of his $350,000 country club deposit, unjust enrichment and breach of implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing.
He also wants to be reinstated as a member of the Bear’s Club country club.
Nicklaus wrote a rare letter to community members around the time of Sellers’ removal. He said in the letter that Bear’s Club Founding Partners has the legal right to remove directors at will.
“One of the selling points for owning property within the Bear’s Club is the absence of the kind of toxic and litigious political environment that bedevils so many residential communities in Florida,” Nicklaus wrote. “The [Bear’s Club] Declaration gave to the Founding Partners the power to resolve disputes and they do so.”
Nicklaus, nicknamed the “Golden Bear” during his tour years, distinguished the Bear’s Club from traditional Florida golf communities by pointing out that its golfing facilities are treated as distinct from the community, and that community members are not required to become golf course members.
He characterized the Bear’s Club not as a residential community, but as a golf course with a “relatively small number of very high-end residential properties” nearby. The properties are “on gorgeous grounds that share a gated access and bask in the glory of adjacency” to the course.
Nicklaus defended the structure whereby the Bear’s Club Founding Partners entity retained control over the community association.
“Property values within the Bear’s Club reflect the wisdom of the organization principles. While we have enjoyed a long period of mostly peaceful coexistence … neighboring associations have been embroiled in nasty lawsuits and divisive politics that served no one’s interest but lawyers,” Nicklaus wrote.
In conjunction with Sellers removal as president, Nicklaus said the community board would be enlarged from three to five members, most of whom would be “unaffiliated with the Founding Partners.” (Sellers disputes the latter statement.)
According to documents submitted by Sellers, Founding Partners’ general partner, Bear’s Club Management, is run by Nicklaus and his son Gary.