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Sharon Baker-Bey v. Delta Sigma Theta Sorority

April 22, 2013


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Baylson, J.


I. Introduction

On March 16, 2012, Plaintiff Sharon Baker-Bey filed her Complaint (ECF 1) claiming common law defamation, breach of fiduciary duty, and negligence against Defendant Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc. ("Delta") and fourteen Delta officials, including the National President (collectively, "Defendants"). On October 10, 2012, Defendants filed a Motion for Summary Judgment (the "Motion) (ECF 16). On November 13, 2012, Plaintiff filed her Response (ECF17). Defendants filed a Reply (ECF 21) on December 5, 2012. Plaintiff filed a Sur-Response (ECF 22) on February 12, 2013, to which Defendants did not reply.*fn1

For the reasons below, Defendants' Motion is GRANTED.

II. Undisputed Facts*fn2

Delta is a sorority that was incorporated in 1913 under the laws of the District of Columbia. (Defs.' Statement of Undisputed Facts ("Def.'s SUF") ¶ 1.) Plaintiff became a member of Delta in 1978 and is now an alumnae member. (Id. ¶ 2.) In accordance with its rules and regulations, Delta suspended Plaintiff's membership and fined her $500 after determining that she had violated the sorority's anti-hazing policy. (Id. ¶ 15; Def.'s Mot., Ex. 15.)

According to Delta's Bylaws, members "may be placed on probation, suspended . . . expelled from the Sorority, [or] fined" for violating the sorority's "rules or regulations." (Bylaws, art. XII, sec. 2.A., Defs.' Mot., Ex. 14.) Delta maintains a zero-tolerance policy regarding all matters related to hazing of prospective members. (Defs.' SUF ¶3.) In keeping with this policy, Delta:

1. Prohibits alumnae members from participating in its college membership intake process, unless they have been trained and specifically selected to do so (Id. ¶ 4.);

2. Prohibits members from "visit[ing] collegiate or alumnae chapters and participat[ing] in underground or illegal Membership Intake" (Bylaws art. XII, sec. 2.B.); and

3. Maintains a detailed list of "Improper or Unacceptable Conduct," section 5.A. of which prohibits "Pre-initiation or illegal Membership Intake and/or underground activities. Underground activities is [sic] anything in addition to or contrary to approved activities." (Code of Conduct, Defs.' Mot., Ex. 10 (emphasis in the original).)

The list of Improper or Unacceptable Conduct also sets forth sanctions and fines for violations -- a first violation of the prohibition on underground activities carries a three-year suspension and a $500 fine. (Id.)

In the spring of 2009, Delta's chapter at Pennsylvania State University's University Park campus ("Penn State") was initiating new members. (Defs.' SUF ¶¶ 5, 7.) On April 11, 2009, the Chapter Primary Advisor discovered Plaintiff eavesdropping on a private ceremony for new Delta initiates. (Id. ¶ 8.) Plaintiff expressed a desire to speak with the new initiates, and the Advisor informed her that doing so is prohibited by Delta's rules and regulations. (Id.) The Advisor asked Plaintiff to leave, which she did. (Id.)

The Advisor subsequently reported the incident to Delta's Regional Director for the Eastern Region. (Id. ¶ 9.) The Regional Director issued a letter to Plaintiff notifying her that, pending the completion of an investigation, she must cease and desist from all activities related to her then alleged violation of "5A. Pre-initiation or illegal Membership Intake and/or underground activities." (Defs.' Mot., Ex. 8; Defs.' SUF ¶ 10.) Delta's investigation, which included interviewing Plaintiff, revealed that Plaintiff admitted both to her presence at Penn State and that she was seeking to make contact with women participating in Delta's membership intake process, though Plaintiff maintained that she had done nothing wrong. (Defs.' SUF ¶ 11; Pl.'s Statement of Undisputed Facts ("Pl.'s SUF") ¶ 11.) During the investigation, Plaintiff produced emails establishing that she had been in contact with a prospective member of Delta regarding the membership intake process. (Defs.' SUF ¶13; Pl.'s SUF ¶ 13.) Plaintiff's emails also referenced her "family," and stated that she "pray[s]" that the prospective member will "join [her] chapter and sorority and hopefully , [sic] my family!" (Defs.' Mot., Ex. 9.) One of the purposes of a "family" is to provide unapproved assistance to potential members during the intake process. (Id., Ex. 4.)

The Regional Director concluded that Plaintiff had violated section 5.A. of Delta's list of Improper or Unacceptable Conduct. (Id., Ex. 9.) Delta's National President approved the Regional Director's determination. (Id., Ex. 11.) Delta then suspended and fined Plaintiff, and posted these sanctions on its website as part of its list of suspended members. (Defs.' SUF ¶ 16.) The posting included Plaintiff's name, the chapter to which she belonged, the length of her suspension, and the amount of her fine. (Defs.' Mot., Ex. 15.) Plaintiff learned of her suspension from a fellow member who saw Plaintiff's name of the suspended list. (Pl.'s SUF ¶ 17.)*fn3

On August 25, 2009, Plaintiff sent an email to Delta, carbon copying the National President, expressing frustration and disappointment with Delta's disciplinary process. (Defs.' Mot., Ex. 19.) In addition to being upset about the manner in which she learned of the disciplinary action taken against her, Plaintiff alleged denial of due process, defamation, breach of contract, negligence, and discrimination.

Plaintiff then availed herself of Delta's disciplinary action appeals process. (Defs.' SUF ¶ 20.) The appeals process consists of three levels. (Chapter Mgmt. Handbook: Appeals Process ("Appeals Process"), Defs.' Mot., Ex. 16.) Delta received Plaintiff's first-level appeal in September 2009, and Delta affirmed its initial decision in October 2009. (Defs.' Mot., Ex. 17.) Plaintiff then appealed to the second level in December 2009. (Id., Ex. 18.)

On December 30, 2009, before disposition of her second-level appeal, Plaintiff sent an email to Delta's "Member Relations Specialist: Internal Policies and Procedures" requesting that her second-level Appeal Disposition Form contain specific information about the conduct for which she had been disciplined, including the names of the people she allegedly hazed, and the places and dates of her underground activities. (Pl.'s Sur-Resp., Ex. A.) Plaintiff's email was forwarded to the National First Vice President, who responded to Plaintiff on January 6, 2010, "assur[ing] [Plaintiff] that the appeal process . . . will be adhered to, as per the Sorority's guidelines." (Id.)

Sometime in January 2010, Delta denied Plaintiff's second-level appeal, affirming its decision to discipline her. (Id., Ex. 18; Pl.'s Sur-Resp., Ex. A.) The exact date of the disposition of Plaintiff's second-level appeal is not clear. Delta's Appeal Disposition Form shows a "Date Decision Was Forwarded" of January 20, 2010, but Plaintiff stated in an email to Delta that she received a "form Appeal Disposition letter" on February 25, 2010, which was dated January 7, 2010. (Defs.' Mot., Ex. 18; Pl.'s Sur-Resp., Ex. A.)

On March 10, 2010, Plaintiff emailed the National President, forwarding to her Plaintiff's December 30, 2009 email regarding the information she wanted Delta to include in her second-level Appeal Disposition Form, as well as the National First Vice President's January 6, 2010 response to that email. (Pl.'s Sur-Resp., Ex. A.) In addition to forwarding these prior emails, Plaintiff wrote a message to the National President, which began "[t]his is a request for your oversight of my situation" and reminded the National President of a July 2009 card in which Plaintiff "ask[ed] for [her] help." Plaintiff went on to complain that her first- and second-level appeals had not been fair. Among other things, she asserted that Delta had not followed its "guidelines" by failing to provide her with "an explanation at the fact finding level" and "the facts regarding the allegations and findings." The message concluded with a threat of legal action if Delta did not provide a "meaningful" response by April 23, 2010. (emphasis in the original).

The National President responded to Plaintiff's March 10, 2010 email the same day. (Id., Ex. B.) The National President informed Plaintiff that she had been "attempting to obtain any additional information that I could for you to be sure you had all the facts concerning your appeal and the process. However, since you have engaged the services of an attorney, I need to forward this to the appropriate persons(s)."

There is no record of Plaintiff replying to the National President's email, or of any other subsequent communication between Plaintiff and Delta. Plaintiff did not request a third-level appeal.*fn4 (Defs.' SUF ¶ 21.)

III. Legal Standard

A district court should grant a motion for summary judgment if the movant can show "that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(a). A dispute is "genuine" if "the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party." Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). A factual dispute is "material" if it "might affect the outcome of the suit under the governing law." Id.

Where the non-moving party bears the burden of proof on a particular issue at trial, the moving party's initial burden can be met simply by showing the district court that "there is an absence of evidence to support the nonmoving party's case." Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 325 (1986). The party opposing summary judgment must rebut by making a factual showing "sufficient 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." Id. at 322. The district court may grant summary judgment "[i]f the evidence is merely colorable, or is not significantly probative." Anderson, 477 U.S. at 249 (citations omitted). Under Rule 56, the Court must view the evidence in the light most favorable to the non-moving party and draw all justifiable inferences in favor of the non-movant. Id. at 255 (citing Adickes v. S.H. Kress & Co., 398 U.S. 144, 158-59 (1970)).

IV. Discussion

Plaintiff claims that Defendants are liable to her for breach of fiduciary duty, negligence, and defamation, because they improperly disciplined her. Plaintiff's breach of fiduciary duty claim is really a request that the Court interfere with Delta's decision to discipline her.*fn5 For the reasons below, the Court finds no basis for such interference. Furthermore, having determined that the decision should stand, the Court finds that Plaintiff's claims for negligence and defamation must fail, ...

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