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Levant v. Whitley

July 20, 2000

CHERYL LEVANT, APPELLANT,
V.
WARREN R. WHITLEY, APPELLEE.



Before Steadman, Reid and Glickman, Associate Judges.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Reid, Associate Judge

Appeal from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia

(Hon. Robert I. Richter, Trial Judge)

Argued May 25, 2000

This case involves an intense dispute between Cheryl G. Levant, *fn1 former Grand Worthy Matron ("Ms. Levant" or "GWM") of the Georgiana Thomas Grand Chapter of the Order of the Eastern Star, Prince Hall Affiliation ("the GT Grand Chapter" or "the Eastern Star, D.C.") and Warren R. Whitley, the Most Worshipful Grand Master ("Mr. Whitley" or "MWGM") of the Most Worshipful Prince Hall Grand Lodge of Free and Accepted Masons, Prince Hall Affiliation of the District of Columbia, Inc. ("Prince Hall, D.C." or "the Grand Lodge") *fn2 over a request that the Eastern Star, D.C. pay rent for space used in the Prince Hall, D.C. building, and over disagreements regarding a conference and the proper relationship between the MWGM and the GWM. The dispute culminated in Ms. Levant's removal as GWM on June 2, 1998. After her removal, Ms. Levant filed a complaint against Mr. Whitley seeking declaratory and injunctive relief; and damages, in part, for "publicly placing person in false light," and defamation. In addition, one of the counts of Ms. Levant's complaint consisted of a "derivative action by corporate stockholders and members" relating to the handling of a fund known as the Jurisdictional Account.

The trial court granted summary judgment in Mr. Whitley's favor. Ms. Levant filed a timely appeal contending, in part, that: (1) she is entitled to a judicial remedy in connection with her alleged wrongful expulsion from office, the allegedly unfair procedures followed by Prince Hall, D.C., and the breach of her alleged contractual rights; (2) she established a prima facie case of defamation; and (3) the trial court erred in dismissing her derivative action claim. We affirm in part and reverse in part.

We conclude that Ms. Levant has failed to establish an appropriate basis for judicial intervention in the dispute over her removal as GWM, which involves the internal affairs and leadership of a private voluntary organization. Hence, we affirm the trial court's judgment with respect to Ms. Levant's removal. We also conclude that, as a matter of law, Ms. Levant cannot prevail on her defamation and false light claims. Finally, because the trial court erroneously determined that no derivative action could be brought by Ms. Levant, and because the derivative action alleges that the MWGM acted in a manner inconsistent with operating procedures pertaining to the Jurisdictional Account, which contains contributions by members of both Prince Hall, D.C. and Eastern Star, D.C., we remand Ms. Levant's derivative action claim to the trial court for factual findings and conclusions, under Super. Ct. Civ. Rule 23.1, with instructions to address two issues: (1) whether Ms. Levant fairly and adequately represents similarly situated members of the GT Grand Chapter, an unincorporated association; and (2) whether it would have been futile for Ms. Levant to make a demand for relief, with respect to the Jurisdictional Account, on the appropriate authority within the structure of the masonic organizations. In all other respects, we affirm the judgment of the trial court.

FACTUAL SUMMARY

On June 2, 1998, by letter, Mr. Whitley, in his capacity as MWGM of Prince Hall, D.C., informed Ms. Levant that she had been removed from her position as GWM of the Eastern Star, D.C. On that same day, the MWGM sent another written communication to Most Worshipful Grand Masters, Grand Worthy Matrons, and Leaders of all Masonic National Bodies, indicating that Ms. Levant had been removed as GWM and should now be called Past Matron, but that the GT Chapter could bestow on her the title of Past Grand Worthy Matron, if its members voted to do so. *fn3

In his letter to Ms. Levant, Mr. Whitley generally accused her of insubordinate and disrespectful acts. He stated, in part: "I informed you . . . that I was unhappy with your attitude, your combativeness, confrontational nature and actions, and your total disrespect for the Office of Grand Master." In support of this accusation, Mr. Whitley referenced Ms. Levant's alleged behavior in meetings with him; her contact with a Prince Hall, D.C. officer whom she allegedly "chewed out"; an open meeting on May 14, 1998, to discuss payment of rent for space in the Prince Hall, D.C. building; and a May 13, 1998 planning meeting with hotel staff in preparation for the Seventy-Ninth Conference of Grand Masters and the Fiftieth Anniversary Conference of Grand Chapters. Ms. Levant's behavior during these meetings was alleged to have been "combative" and "negative," and she was accused of ignoring or disputing the directives of the MWGM. In addition, she was criticized for failing to attend certain meetings.

Mr. Whitley's letter also cited a decision by Ms. Levant to purchase glasses for gifts to persons attending the Conference, even though she was aware that the Conference Committee would be selling glasses; and her attempt to place an unsolicited article and picture in a new Masonic Journal. The MWGM informed Ms. Levant that persons in other jurisdictions had become aware of her behavior and that her "actions were also bringing shame to the Office of the Grand Worthy Matron." He reminded Ms. Levant that Prince Hall, D.C. had created the Eastern Star, D.C., *fn4 and that "[Prince Hall, D.C.] is the supreme authority in this Masonic Jurisdiction." He added that: "The Grand Master may arrest [remove] the Jewel of Office of any officer, grand or subordinate, and censure, reprimand or suspend any member of the Craft for improper or unmasonic conduct."

Ms. Levant sent a June 5, 1998 letter to Mr. Whitley expressing a desire to appeal her removal and to be reinstated to her position as GWM. She also filed a complaint in the Superior Court on June 15, 1998. Furthermore, in response to a June 18, 1998 letter from the Prince Hall Committee on Grievances and Appeals ("the Grievance Committee") requesting specific documentation of the reasons for her appeal, Ms. Levant submitted a letter dated July 13, 1998, denying "any breach or violation of any of the Landmarks, Articles and Rules of the Constitution and By-Laws applicable to this Masonic Jurisdiction," or "any written and/or oral order as well as directive issued by the [MWGM]." She referred to Mr. Whitley's accusations of combativeness and disrespect as "subjective assessments." Moreover, she maintained that she personally attended scheduled meetings relating to the work of the GT Grand Chapter, and sent representatives to special meetings when they conflicted with her "vocational commitments."

Furthermore, Ms. Levant explained that she did not "chew out" a Prince Hall officer, and that, in that case, "[t]he issue was an outgrowth of communication, protocol and due respect as well as recognition of a chain of authority through the Office of the Grand Worthy Matron." She defended her actions with respect to the payment of rent issue, detailing the process that the GT Grand Chapter used to study the matter; and discussed the meeting with the hotel representatives, denying "any intent to have the last word or present a confrontational aspect." Her purchase of glasses for the Conference of Grand Chapters was not intended as competition with the Conference Committee, but as "tokens of love to the visiting Grand Worthy Matrons and Grand Worthy Patrons." Furthermore, the article and picture were submitted to the Masonic Journal in response to a solicitation of ads for the Journal. Finally, she reiterated her desire to appeal her removal as GWM, and pointed out that "Rules 74 and 75 of the []Prince Hall[] Corpus Juris do[] not address appeals for the Sisters of the Order of the Eastern Star."

Between August 3 and 12, 1998, the Prince Hall Grievance Committee interviewed Ms. Levant and Mr. Whitley, as well as twenty-three witnesses identified by them. The report of the Grievance Committee, notes taken on each interview, and various other documents were sent to the MWGM on September 5, 1998. The report concluded that Mr. Whitley violated no "Masonic statutes or Masonic laws written or unwritten" in removing Ms. Levant from office, and that he acted within his authority as MWGM. A letter was also sent to Ms. Levant advising her of the Grievance Committee's decision.

The Grievance Committee presented its report at a special session of the Grand Lodge, open only to Master Masons. Following a motion to accept the report of the Grievance Committee, Mr. Emory Levant made a substitute motion to reinstate Ms. Levant as GWM. After discussion, the motion "to accept the Committee's report with no further action by the Grand Lodge" passed. Mr. Levant's second motion to reinstate Ms. Levant was rebuffed. Then, the MWGM quoted from the Ancient Regulations and accused Ms. Levant of violating the regulations by filing a lawsuit. Thereupon, a motion was made to suspend Ms. Levant. After discussion, the motion was withdrawn. Subsequently, however, on September 24, 1998, Mr. Whitley suspended Ms. Levant from the Eastern Star, D.C., until "notifi[cation] to the contrary," because the filing of her lawsuit was deemed in violation of Prince Hall, D.C.'s Ancient Regulation on Behavior. *fn5 The suspension directive, sent to "all owing allegiance" to Prince Hall, D.C., further advised that those who in the future give support to Ms. Levant's lawsuit also would be suspended.

After September 1998, focus on the controversy involving Ms. Levant shifted to the trial court. On February 17, 1999, Mr. Whitley moved for summary judgment, and a few weeks later Ms. Levant filed an opposition. In an order docketed on ...


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