SAN FRANCISCO — 24 Hour Fitness was recently hit with a class action lawsuit for allegedly engaging in illegal and deceptive billing practices. Jennifer Pickering, a 25-year-old legal assistant, sued the health club chain for charging her $48 for two extra months of membership fees after she quit and not reimbursing her $239 for four unused personal training sessions.

The class action lawsuit seeks discontinuation of the practices, punitive damages and reimbursement for members who have been charged for the prepaid fitness sessions and the post-cancellation membership fees over the past four years. Patrick Kitchin, one of Pickering's lawyers, said the 24 Hour Fitness contract includes fine print and vague language requiring members to give the company 30 business days to stop EFT withdrawals. Pickering's club in San Ramon, CA, however, took 63 days to cancel her membership, which represents illegal profit taking and an unfair business practice under California's Contracts for Health Studio Services Act, he said.

“California has strong legislation to protect consumers from fraud and unfair practices and a strong public policy against forfeiture and penalties including terms within a contract,” he said. “At the end of the day, the court will decide the impact of these terms that resulted in a windfall profit to the company.”

The lawyers said some of the 24 Hour Fitness members allegedly had to close their bank accounts or cancel their credit cards to stop getting billed for the monthly membership fee.

“It looks like it was not only their policy to charge a certain number of months after the termination of the contract, but in many instances, it took up to eight months,” said Dan Feder, Kitchin's co-counsel for the case. “When they saw charges on their credit card, they complained to the manager for a refund and didn't get it.”

In California, a single individual can represent an entire class in a class action suit. While this individual may not be awarded a significant amount in damages, when the damages are added up across the entire class, the financial effect on a corporation can be significant, Kitchin said. He said it's too early in the litigation process to determine how much 24 Hour Fitness would have to pay if Pickering wins the case, but the two attorneys said this lawsuit could affect tens of thousands of Californians as well as more than 190 of the 24 Hour Fitness clubs in the state.

“We've already heard from more than a dozen individuals within 30 days of filing the lawsuit, which is a large number,” Kitchin said.

24 Hour spokespersons said the lawsuit has no merit, and the company plans on fighting it aggressively through the courts.