Updated at 4:03 p.m.
The District of Columbia Court of Appeals reversed the dismissal of a lawsuit alleging financial impropriety within the nation's oldest historically black sorority, Alpha Kappa Alpha, Inc.
In an opinion (PDF) released this morning, the appellate judges found that the District of Columbia Superior Court trial judge erred in tossing the case in early 2010. It was remanded for further proceedings.
Eight members of the sorority filed the lawsuit in June 2009. The sorority’s leadership is accused of approving expenditures without going through the sorority’s legislative body, known as the Boule, including a $250,000 payout and $4,000-per-month stipend for the president at the time, Barbara McKinzie. The sorority denied any wrongdoing.
The lawsuit claimed that members were not given an opportunity to discuss the expenditures during the Boule’s biennial meeting in 2008, despite assurances from the leadership that the floor would be open at the end of the meeting. Finally, the members accused the sorority’s leadership of revoking their membership in retaliation for filing the suit.
Superior Court Judge Natalia Combs Greene dismissed the lawsuit in February 2010. According to the appeals court opinion, Greene found that the members failed to accuse the sorority and its leadership of taking actions prohibited by statute in its ultra vires claim; lacked standing because they weren’t suing on behalf of the whole membership; and lacked jurisdiction over individual officials who don’t live in Washington, among other reasons.
The appeals court reversed Greene on the bulk of her findings. The court wrote that an ultra vires claim can be based on an alleged violation of organizational by-laws, as the members did in this case. The court also found that unlike a derivative suit filed by shareholders of a for-profit corporation, dues-paying members of a nonprofit could have individual standing.
On jurisdiction, the appeals court found that because the underlying case centered on the sorority officials’ behavior at a Boule meeting in Washington, they could sue in this court. The court affirmed the dismissal of a corporate waste claim and the entire case against the AKA Education Foundation, a separate entity named in the complaint.
Christian Eriksen of Washington’s Fitch, Even, Tabin & Flannery represented the members. He had not reviewed the opinion when reached for comment this morning.
Dale Cooter of Washington's Cooter, Mangold, Deckelbaum & Karas represented the sorority.
"The people that got sued here never did anything wrong. I’m disappointed it's not over," he said.
The sorority, through a spokeswoman, declined to comment.
"We are reviewing the decision but we have no comment while litigation is pending," the sorority said in the statement.