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Jolevare v. Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority

November 9, 2007


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Reggie B. Walton United States District Judge


On October 6, 2005, the plaintiffs, Joie Jolevare and Salome Tinker, filed the complaint in this action*fn1 alleging violations of the District of Columbia Human Rights Act ("DCHRA"), D.C. Code § 2-1402.11 (2001) (Count I), breach of contract (Count II), defamation (Count III), and negligence (Count IV). Specifically, the plaintiffs contend that the defendant, Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc. ("AKA"), committed these violations when it suspended the plaintiffs for alleged acts of hazing in connection with the initiation of new members into the sorority. Currently before this Court are the plaintiffs' motion for summary judgment ("Pls.' Mot.") and the defendant's cross-motion for summary judgment ("Def.'s Cross-Mot.").*fn2 Upon consideration of the parties' submissions and the record, the Court must deny the plaintiffs' motion for summary judgment and grant the defendant's cross-motion for summary judgment.*fn3


AKA is a private, voluntary, social organization comprised primarily of African-American women that was established in 1908 to "cultivate and encourage high scholastic and ethical standards, improve the social stature of the race, promote unity and friendship among college women, and keep alive within graduates an interest in college life and progressive movement emanating therefrom." Def.'s Cross-Mem., Exhibit ("Ex.") 1(Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority Incorporated Constitution and Bylaws, (2004)) ("Constitution & Bylaws") at Preamble. AKA consists of numerous individual chapters throughout the country whose memberships are comprised of either college graduates and called graduate chapters or college students and called undergraduate chapters. Id. at 23-24.

Prior to the event that resulted in the plaintiffs' suspension, AKA initiated a national effort to eliminate all forms of hazing after two AKA pledgees drowned during initiation activities in California in September 2002.*fn4 Def.'s Opp'n, Ex. 7 (Sample-Oates Cert.) ¶¶ 3-5. As part of this effort, "a moratorium was placed nationally on the sorority for the hazing incident in California," and "[n]o chapter [was authorized to] initiate new members" Compl. ¶¶ 5-6. Furthermore, in response to lawsuits brought against the sorority by the relatives of the two drowned pledgees, AKA's Supreme Basileus*fn5 appointed a "Risk Management Task Force to propose bylaws and procedures to reduce the sorority's vulnerability to lawsuit[s]." Def.'s Opp'n, Ex. 7 (Sample-Oates Cert.) ¶ 4, Def.'s Cross Mem., Ex. 2 (Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Incorporated Anti-Hazing Handbook, Say "No" to Hazing! (2005)) ("Anti-Hazing Handbook") at 7. The critical objectives of the Risk Management Task Force were "[t]o increase the required qualifications for graduate advisors, members of graduate advisory councils and mentors," "[t]o develop strategies to change sorors' attitudes and behaviors that reinforce hazing," and "[t]o develop stricter sanctions for violation of the sorority's Anti-Hazing Policy." Def.'s Cross Mem., Ex. 2 (Anti-Hazing Handbook) at 7-8. The handbook defines hazing as:

[A]n act or series of acts which includes, but is not limited to, physical acts such as hitting, striking, laying hands upon or threatening to do bodily harm to any individual(s), while acting in one's capacity as a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha, behavior which is directed against any individual(s) for the purpose of causing shame, abuse, insult, humiliation, intimidation or disgrace, and a variety of prohibited practices, including[,] but not limited to, "underground hazing," "financial hazing," "pre-pledging," "post-pledging," or "post-initiation pledging."

Id. at 9. In addition to the handbook's indication that hazing is strictly prohibited and will not be tolerated in any form by the organization, the handbook states that the sorority is authorized to conduct fact finding, make determinations, and implement disciplinary processes under its anti-hazing policy. Id.

The plaintiffs are sorority members who had graduated from Howard University and were also graduate certified advisors for the undergraduate Xi Omega Chapter of AKA ("Xi Omega"). Def.'s Opp'n., Ex. 4 (Deposition of Salome Tinker) (" Tinker Dep.") at 19-20; Compl. ¶¶ 30-31. However, in 2005, the plaintiffs' memberships were suspended when the organization determined that the plaintiffs and other graduate members of AKA violated the sorority's anti-hazing guidelines.*fn6 Specifically, the plaintiffs were accused as graduate advisors of supervising an outdoor rehearsal after midnight and in cold weather for approximately 125 new undergraduate members of the Alpha Chapter of AKA ("Alpha Chapter") located at Howard University in Washington, D.C.*fn7 Def.'s Opp'n., Ex. 4 ( Tinker Dep.) at 19-20, 27-28; Pls.' Mem. Ex. C (Deposition of Evelyn Sample-Oates) ("Sample-Oates Dep.") at 40-41. The rehearsal was conducted in preparation for the new members participation in a campus "introduction show." Pls.' Mem., Ex. A (Memorandum For Appeal From Suspension of Joie Jolevare, dated September 30, 2005) ("Jolevare Letter of Appeal") at 3. It is undisputed that the rehearsal was terminated when Phyllis Young, the president of Xi Omega, and Pamela Chew, the graduate advisor for Alpha Chapter, arrived at the rehearsal and communicated by telephone with Joy Daley, the Regional Director of the Sorority, about the rehearsal. Def.'s Opp'n, Ex. 10 (Deposition of Joie Jolevare) ("Jolevare Dep.") at 82, Ex. 12 (First Set of Plaintiffs' Interrogatories) Interrogatory No. 10. After reviewing the circumstances surrounding the incident, AKA determined that the rehearsal violated its anti-hazing policy, and sometime around September 3, 2005, suspended the plaintiffs along with other graduate members who were present at the rehearsal.*fn8 Def.'s Opp'n, Ex. 8 (Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority Incorporated Alpha Chapter Improprieties and Penalties Letter dated September 3, 2005) ("Improprieties and Penalties Letter dated September 3, 2005") at 2. Although the plaintiffs filed internal appeals of their suspensions with AKA, plaintiff Jolevare abandoned her appeal when she subsequently filed this lawsuit, while plaintiff Tinker initiated this action prior to filing her appeal with the sorority.*fn9


Courts will grant a motion for summary judgment under Rule 56(c) if "the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c). When ruling on a motion for summary judgment, this Court must view the evidence in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party. Bayer v. United States Dep't of Treasury, 956 F.2d 330, 333 (D.C. Cir.1992).

"Likewise, when ruling on cross-motions for summary judgment, the court shall grant summary judgment only if one of the moving parties is entitled to judgment as a matter of law upon material facts that are not genuinely in dispute." Teva Pharmaceuticals, Industries, Ltd. v. Food and Drug Admin., 355 F. Supp. 2d 111, 116 (D.D.C. 2004) (citing Barr Laboratories, Inc. v. Thompson, 238 F. Supp. 2d 236, 244 (D.D.C. 2002). However, the non-moving party cannot rely on "mere allegations or denials . . ., but . . . must set forth specific facts showing that there [are] genuine issue[s] for trial." Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986) (citation omitted). Under Rule 56, "if a party fails to establish the existence of an element essential to that party's case and on which that party will bear the burden of proof at trial," summary judgment is warranted. Hazward v. Runyon, 14 F. Supp. 2d 120, 122 (D.D.C.1998) (citing Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U .S. 317, 322 (1986)). The party moving for summary judgment bears the burden of establishing the absence of evidence that supports the non-moving party's case. Id. Finally, in considering a motion for summary judgment, "the court must draw all reasonable inferences in favor of the nonmoving party, and it may not make credibility determinations or weigh the evidence." Reeves v. Sanderson Plumbing Prods., Inc., 530 U.S. 133, 150 (2000).


A. The Plaintiff's DCHRA Claim (Count I)

The plaintiffs allege that the defendant violated the DCHRA, specifically, D.C. Code § 2- 1402.11(a)(1), when it suspended them for hazing, while "younger" undergraduate "student members [of the] [d]efendant's organization were not suspended, despite the defendant's policies and procedures stating that participants and witnesses to hazing that do not come forward are to be suspended." Pls.' Opp'n at 13. In opposition, the defendant responds that the plaintiffs cannot prevail on their DCHRA claim because D.C. Code § 2-1402.11(a)(1) "does not apply to AKA--a private, voluntary organization." Def.'s Opp'n. at 5. Specifically, the defendant asserts that "[t]he statute itself, and caselaw reviewing this statute[ ], reflects that Section 2-1402.11 of the District of Columbia Code [ ] only prohibits the conduct described therein of employers, employment agencies, and labor organizations." Id. Thus, the defendant asserts ...

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