Jury finds golf course contract is illegal

A Middlesex Superior Court jury has awarded hundreds of thousands of dollars to the former operator of Duxbury’s municipal 9-hole golf course, after finding that the town unfairly ousted the company that had been managing it.

Lawyers on both sides disagree on the amount of the jury’s award in the verdict, and it appears the case will be appealed.

The April 24 verdict was the latest development in the legal battle over the contract to run North Hill Country Club on Merry Avenue, near the Marshfield town line, that dates to 2008. Johnson Golf Management Inc. was running the course then, as it had for the past 15 years. When Duxbury officials picked a new company to take over the course, Johnson Golf accused the officials of bid-rigging and sued the town.

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“That contract was awarded illegally,” said Douglas W. Johnson, principal of Johnson Golf Management. “When I’m cheated, I don’t go away. I’m going to stick up for my rights. If someone cheats me, I’m not going to let them get away with it.”

In February 2009, a Middlesex Superior Court judge ruled that Johnson Golf could continue to run North Hill until the case was resolved. But in October 2010, Duxbury selectmen voted to terminate Johnson’s contract, and the following year, the town awarded a five-year contract to Pilgrim Golf LLC, the current operator.

Johnson’s lawsuit went to trial in Middlesex Superior Court in Woburn earlier this month before Judge Kenneth V. Desmond Jr.

Stephen R. Follansbee, Johnson’s attorney, said the jury found that the town violated Chapter 30B, the state’s uniform procurement act that regulates how municipalities award contracts, and engaged in “unfair and deceptive” acts under Chapter 93A, the state’s consumer protection act, when it passed over Johnson and awarded the North Hill contract to another firm.

“Town officials have to pay attention and follow the rules,” said Follansbee. “You’ve got to treat all bidders fairly and you have to conform to the laws. Under public bidding statutes, you can’t rig it, and that’s what they were doing.”

Follansbee said the jury awarded $200,000 in lost profits and $400,000 in punitive damages to Johnson, and the town of Duxbury will be responsible for attorney fees.

But Leonard H. Kesten, the attorney representing the town, interpreted the verdict differently. He said he doesn’t believe the jury’s award adds up to $600,000, as Follansbee asserts, and he believes the verdict will be reversed.

“The town did not dispute that a mistake was made, and 30B was violated,” said Kesten. But “the jury found that the town didn’t violate Chapter 30B in bad faith, so they are not entitled to lost profits . . . which is a crucial finding. I believe there’s a 90 percent chance that the Appeals Court will reverse this verdict and the plaintiff will get nothing.”

The next court date has not been set, he said. “They won’t give up, and we certainly won’t,” Kesten said. “This is very, very far from over.”

As the case drags on, it has also resulted in separate legal action by the town against its former longtime counsel, Robert S. Troy, alleging malpractice in his handling of the bidding process for the North Hill contract. Kesten said Troy was fired last May and “the town is currently suing him for his conduct in this case.”

The lawsuit against Troy, the town’s attorney for 26 years, is pending in Plymouth Superior Court.

Johnson said he was glad the Middlesex Superior Court jury came to the conclusion it did last week.

“We’ll never know what we would’ve made in the five years” of the contract, he said. “It’s just sad that these municipalities don’t get it, and play by the rules. I think this sends a message.”

It’s not the first time Johnson has fought over a golf course contract in court. In 2002, Johnson sued Boston after he lost the contract for the city’s George Wright Golf Course in Hyde Park, despite offering more than the chosen bidder.

In the spring of 2003, a Middlesex Superior Court judge sided with Johnson and ordered city officials to rebid the contract. Johnson still has a lawsuit pending against Boston, and the next court date is scheduled for July.

Johnson has managed more than a dozen public and private golf courses in Massachusetts since 1988. The firm currently operates three courses: Whaling City Golf Course in New Bedford, Pakachoag Golf Course in Auburn, and Indian Meadows Golf Club in Westborough.