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Stark v. Zeta Phi Beta Sorority

November 21, 2008


The opinion of the court was delivered by: James Robertson United States District Judge


Natasha Stark brought this suit against her sorority after she was expelled from the sisterhood. I dismissed Stark's claims for breach of contract and negligence at a September 11, 2008 status conference after hearing argument on Zeta Phi Beta's dispositive motion. Dkt. 17. What remains after that in-court dismissal is a defamation claim that concerns three statements made in a four-page letter disseminated to the entire ZPB sisterhood by Sheryl Underwood, the chair of ZPB's national executive board. The Underwood letter gave ZPB's perspective on the circumstances surrounding Stark's expulsion.

Upon further consideration of ZPB's motion, Stark's opposition and the whole record, I find that Stark made herself a limited public figure for the purposes of this case; that the statements in the Underwood letter of which she complains are covered by the "common interest" and "defense" privileges; and that no reasonable juror could find that the statements were published with subjective or "actual" malice. Summary judgment will accordingly be granted for ZPB.


Most of the relevant facts are undisputed. Stark was a member of ZPB as an undergraduate at Georgia State University. P. Opp. at 1. After her graduation she remained involved in the sorority and held a number of positions. Id. At some point, it was revealed that ZPB's "Grand Basileus" was using the sorority's American Express card to buy personal items such as wigs, jewelry, and clothing.*fn1 Pl. Opp. at 2. The sorority dealt with the situation by accepting a promissory note from the Basileus, Def, SMF at 2*fn2, but Stark, dissatisfied with this resolution, took it upon herself to inform other members of ZPB and the media about what had happened, first using her husband's email account, Def. MSJ ex. 7, and then, when ZPB demanded that her husband cease and desist, Def. MSJ exs. 8, 9, her email account at work. She sent an email to the South Carolina Black News, setting forth her version of events and offering to provide documentation. Def. MSJ ex. 10. Then she sent a similar email to a variety of other news media outlets, including ABC, NBC, and CBS. Def. MSJ ex. 3, at p. 52. ZPB accused Stark of publishing a libel and demanded that she desist. Def. MSJ ex. 11. Stark persisted, however, and was the source of information for two television broadcasts on the Basileus's spending habits by the "I-Team" at ABC affiliate WJLA-TV, appearing on these programs disguised to conceal her identity. Def. MSJ exs. 23, 24.

In February 2006, ZPB was advised that a federal grand jury was investigating the Basileus's use of ZPB funds. Pl. Opp. at 2. Stark received a subpoena to testify before and provide documents to the grand jury, and she complied. Pl. Opp. ex. 3. The U.S. Attorney closed the case without indictment. Pl Opp. ex. 4.

In September 2006, certain sisters in ZPB's Epsilon Zeta chapter complained to ZPB's Georgia State Director that Stark's activities had been "designed to tear down versus build up Zeta Phi Beta" and demanded immediate action. Def. MSJ ex.14. In October 2006, the Georgia State Director informed Stark that she had conducted an investigation into the allegations, that Stark was suspended, and that she would recommend Stark's expulsion from the sorority. Def. MSJ ex. 15. Soon after, Stark advised ZPB through her attorney that she wanted to contest the charges against her. Def. MSJ ex 17.

On February 8, 2007, the chair of ZPB's national executive board informed Stark by letter that she was expelled and that an appeals hearing would be held on March 9, 2007. Def. MSJ ex. 20. On February 17, 2007, one Edda Pittman published a "press release," in which Stark was thoroughly quoted about how she was "the member held responsible for circulating the documentation upon which the" WJLA-TV stories were based and had been expelled from ZPB. Pl. Opp. ex. 6. Stark's request to attend the appeals hearing via teleconference was refused. On the day before the hearing, Stark appeared on a follow-up broadcast by the WJLA-TV I-Team, revealing that it was she who had "outed" the story of the Grand Basileus's spending habits, that her expulsion hearing was scheduled for the next day, and that the whole thing felt "like a kick in the stomach." Def. MSJ ex 21. On March 9, 2008 Stark's expulsion was upheld. WJLA reported this event too, quoting Stark as warning that: "The question that members need to ask themselves is who's next." Def. MSJ ex. 24. The Underwood letter referred to at the beginning of this memorandum was sent to all ZPB sisters on March 17, 2006. Def. MSJ ex. 5.


Stark's claim is that three statements in the Underwood letter are defamatory: (1) that "the recommendation to expel Ms. Stark was 'properly' made by members of the Epislon Zeta Chapter"; (2) that Stark "made statements with 'disregard for the truth'"; and (3) that Stark "was not a whistle-blower because a whistle blower is a person who provides truthful information to a law enforcement officer [in] relation to the commission or possible commission of a federal offense." Compl. at ¶ 20.

ZPB's motion for summary judgment argues that these statements are covered by the "defense" and "common interest" privileges; that Stark is a limited public figure for the purposes of this case; and that Stark has failed to identify a genuine issue of material fact bearing on the propositions that (1) the statements are true and (2) they were made and published without "actual" or subjective malice.

Legal Standards For Defamation

"A plaintiff bringing a defamation action . . . must show: (1) that the defendant made a false and defamatory statement concerning the plaintiff; (2) that the defendant published the statement without privilege to a third party; (3) that the defendant's fault in publishing the statement amounted to at least negligence; and (4) either that the statement was actionable as a matter of law irrespective of special harm or that its publication caused the plaintiff special harm."*fn3 Beeton v. District of Columbia, 779 A.2d 918, 923 (D.C. 2001) (internal citation and quotations omitted). "In the District of Columbia, a statement is defamatory if it tends to injure [the] plaintiff in his [or her] trade, profession or community standing or lower him in the estimation of the community." Guilford Transp. Indus., Inc. v. Wilner, 760 A.2d 580, 594 (D.C. 2000) (internal quotations and citation omitted). A "publication must be taken as a whole, and in the sense in which it would be understood by the readers to whom it was addressed." Afro-American Pub. Co. v. Jaffe, 366 F.2d 649, 659 (D.C. Cir. 1966). But "[a] court's power to hold as a matter of law that a statement is not capable of a defamatory meaning is limited to those cases ...

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