COMPTON et al v. SORORITY, INC. et al
MEMORANDUM AND OPINION. Signed by Judge Rosemary M. Collyer on 4/11/2013. (lcrmc2)
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA
SANDRA COMPTON, et al.,
Civil Action No. 13-262 (RMC)
ALPHA KAPPA ALPHA SORORITY )
INCORPORATED, et al.,
Two members of the Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority and their daughters sued the
Sorority, alleging that the daughters were wrongly denied entry into the AKA chapter at Howard
University. Because the younger women are seniors at Howard University whose last window of
opportunity to join the Sorority was rapidly closing, Plaintiffs filed a motion for a temporary
restraining order and preliminary injunctive relief. Immediately prior to an evidentiary hearing
on the preliminary injunction, Plaintiffs’ counsel alleged that AKA had sought to tamper with
and intimidate witnesses and presented official Sorority letters in support. For reasons stated on
the record, the Court denied preliminary injunctive relief but directed briefing on the allegations
of witness tampering. As explained below, the Court will deny the motion without prejudice.
Plaintiffs filed suit on February 28, 2013, invoking this Court’s diversity
jurisdiction pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1332. See Compl. [Dkt. 1]. Plaintiffs brought common law
claims, including breach of contract, against AKA and Howard University, as well as claims for
violation of the D.C. Human Rights Act, D.C. Code § 2–1401.01 et seq. 1 Plaintiffs sought a
temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction, see Dkts. 3 & 4, because the Sorority
initiation process at Howard was scheduled to end shortly, and relief would thereafter be
unavailable. The Court heard oral argument on the motion for a TRO at a hearing on March 5,
2013, at which counsel for all parties were present. The Court denied the motion from the bench.
See Minute Order dated March 5, 2013. At Plaintiffs’ request, the Court scheduled an
evidentiary hearing on the motion for a preliminary injunction for March 7, 2013, at which
Plaintiffs’ counsel stated he expected at least one of the Sorority-member Plaintiffs—Sandra
Compton or Lessie Cofield—to testify.
Before the March 7 evidentiary hearing began, however, counsel for Plaintiffs
stated that he believed AKA had engaged in witness tampering, and he made an oral motion for
sanctions. Specifically, Plaintiffs’ counsel asserted that AKA had sent letters to Sorority
members Compton and Cofield on March 4, 2013 that immediately suspended their membership
privileges and threatened permanent expulsion because they filed this lawsuit. Plaintiffs’
counsel argued that the letters intimidated the Plaintiffs, made them reticent to testify or pursue
the case, and inhibited their ability to secure testimony or evidence from other Sorority members
who were supportive of Plaintiffs but feared similar retaliation. The Sorority’s lawyer conceded
that AKA had sent the letters but contended that AKA had done so pursuant to its internal
policies requiring members to pursue administrative avenues prior to seeking judicial remedies.
The Court expressed grave concern about AKA’s conduct and proceeded with the evidentiary
hearing, at which Ms. Cofield testified. For reasons stated on the record, the Court denied the
In a recent filing, Plaintiffs informed the Court that they withdraw Counts I, II, III, VII, VIII,
and IX and that they intend to file an amended complaint. See [Dkts. 18 & 19]. In the
accompanying Order, the Court directs Plaintiffs to file a motion for leave to file an amended
motion for a preliminary injunction, but directed AKA to file a memorandum addressing the
allegations of witness tampering and permitted Plaintiffs to file a response. See Second Minute
Order dated March 7, 2013. AKA has filed its memorandum, see Dkt. 12 (“AKA Mem.”), as
well as a reply, see Dkt. 16. Plaintiffs have filed a response and surreply. See Dkt. 13 (“Pls.
Resp.”), Dkt. 14 (“Pls. Exs.”), Dkt. 17 (“Surreply”).
II. LEGAL STANDARD
A United States district court has the inherent authority “to protect [its] integrity
and prevent abuses of the judicial process.” See Shepherd v. Am. Broadcasting Cos., Inc., 62
F.3d 1469, 1474 (D.C. Cir. 1995) (citing Chambers v. NASCO, Inc., 501 U.S. 32, 46 (1991)).
“The inherent power encompasses the power to sanction attorney or party misconduct . . . .” Id.
at 1475 (citing, inter alia, Chambers, 501 U.S. at 43–45, and Roadway Express, Inc. v. Piper,
447 U.S. 752, 765–66 (1980)).
The evidentiary standard governing use of a court’s inherent power varies with
the nature of the sanction imposed. So-called “issue-related sanctions”—those that are
“fundamentally remedial rather than punitive and do not preclude a trial on the merits”—require
proof by a preponderance of the evidence. Id. at 1478. Any “fundamentally penal” sanctions—
“dismissals and default judgments, as well as contempt orders, awards of attorneys’ fees, and the
imposition of fines”—require proof by clear and convincing evidence. Id. A court may enter the
latter form of sanction “only if it finds, first, that there is clear and convincing evidence that the
fraudulent or bad faith misconduct occurred, and second, that a lesser sanction ‘would not
sufficiently punish and deter the abusive conduct while allowing a full and fair trial on the merits
. . . provid[ing] a specific reasoned explanation for rejecting lesser sanctions.’” Young v. Office
of U.S. Senate Sergeant at Arms, 217 F.R.D. 61, 66 (D.D.C. 2003) (quoting Shepherd, 62 F.3d at
“Three basic justifications . . . support the use of dismissal as a default judgment
as a sanction for misconduct:” if the “errant party’s behavior has severely hampered the other
party’s ability to present his case,” if “the party’s misconduct has put an intolerable burden on a
district court by requiring the court to modify its own docket and operations in order to
accommodate the delay,” or if the Court finds the need “to sanction conduct that is disrespectful
to the court and to deter similar misconduct in the future.” Webb v. District of Columbia, 146
F.3d 964, 971 (D.C. Cir. 1998) (citing Shea v. Donohue Constr. Co., 795 F.2d 1071, 1074–77
(D.C. Cir. 1986)) (internal quotation marks omitted).
Review of the parties’ submissions confirms that the Court’s initial unease upon
learning Plaintiffs’ allegations was justified. The letters sent to Ms. Compton and Ms. Cofield,
both dated March 4, 2013 and identical except for the addressee names and addresses, stated in
This is to advise you that at its meeting on March 2, 2013, the
Directorate of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc., voted to
withdraw your privileges as a member of the Sorority. This
decision was based on your filing the lawsuit captioned Compton,
et al. v. AKA, et al., U.S. District Court for the District of
Columbia, Case No. 1:13:00262.
Your initiative of this suit is in violation of the Constitution and
Bylaws, and in particular, the Soror Code of Conduct. . . .
[T]his shall disqualify you from participating in the Sorority and
all Sorority activities . . . . Violation of this sanction will result in
recommendation for expulsion.
Cofield Letter, Pls. Ex. 2 [Dkt. 14-1] at 1; accord Compton Letter, Pls. Ex. 3 [Dkt. 14-1]. Both
Plaintiffs have submitted affidavits describing the stress they experienced upon receiving the
letters, but—most importantly for present purposes—Ms. Compton avers that the letter caused
her to “decide[ ] not to travel to D.C. [from Atlanta] for the second round of hearings on March
7th because [she] felt that [her] physical presence might lead to [her] expulsion from AKA.”
Compton Aff., Pls. Ex. 11 [Dkt. 14-1] ¶ 5; see also Cofield Aff., Pls. Ex. 10 [Dkt. 14-1].
Furthermore, Ms. Cofield asserts that other AKA members who had been “empathetic to
[Plaintiffs’] cause” prior to March 4 “became distant and advised that they did not want to get
involved” because “they feared the same reprisal.” Cofield Aff. ¶ 14. Ms. Cofield has noted one
such potential witness who originally “provided valuable information” but “is now very aware
and frightened by AKA’s modus operandi of suspending membership privileges and levying
threats of expulsion.” Id. at ¶¶ 15–16.
AKA’s response is underwhelming and misses the point. Conceding that it sent
the letters, AKA seeks to justify its actions by arguing that the letters “have not substantially
impacted or interfered with the orderly disposition of this case,” that “there is no evidence or
allegation of any attempt to defraud or to taint the integrity of evidence,” and that “there is no
clear and convincing evidence of bad faith by AKA, whose primary purpose was to consistently
enforce well established polices [sic] and rules.” AKA Mem. at 3. AKA’s argument ignores the
immediate impact here caused by Ms. Compton’s fear of testifying. The Sorority stresses that it
must “have a consistent, structured grievance process” and its “membership must be on notice
that [its exhaustion policy] will be enforced and there will be consequences for violations.” Id. at
5–6. AKA seeks to absolve itself of witness tampering by emphasizing “the need to keep the
membership as a whole on notice that there are consequences to [ ] violations” of its “wellestablished rules.” Id. at 6; see also Letter to Court from Ms. Carolyn House Stewart, Esq.
(“Letter to Court”), Pls. Ex. 4 [Dkt. 14-1] at 2–3 (“The Directorate must take meaningful action
that impacts a sorors’ [sic] membership privileges if it hopes to survive in these increasingly
Of course AKA can maintain an internal grievance procedure, but once it is sued,
it cannot threaten witnesses to impede their testimony. The Court finds that the actions of AKA
were deplorable and inadvisable, as at least AKA’s counsel now concedes, and had the impact of
impeding testimony. See AKA Mem. at 7 (“[W]here AKA perhaps erred was in focusing only
on its big-picture organizational concerns and not considering more carefully how its action
could be perceived by the Plaintiffs and the Court in relation to this pending litigation.”). The
acknowledgement of counsel does not seem to be his client’s position, since the Sorority has not
retracted the threatening letters. To the contrary, it seems to misperceive the seriousness of the
situation. See Letter to Court at 3 (“Although the Board could have imposed more severe
sanctions on the plaintiffs, it chose to limit their action to the withdrawal of privileges . . . .”).
Despite the wrongful, supercilious conduct of AKA, the Court finds that no
sanction is appropriate at the present. The exigency underlying Plaintiffs’ request for
preliminary injunctive relief has past, and the Court concludes that the effects of AKA’s conduct
would not have altered its decision to deny such relief. Because Plaintiffs intend to amend their
complaint and the Court cannot predict what course this case will take, the full impact of the
letters and their continuing consequences for AKA cannot be gauged at this juncture. The Court
thus denies Plaintiffs’ motion without prejudice. Plaintiffs may reassert this issue later in the
proceedings if they can show specific evidence or testimony was unavailable due to AKA’s
actions. The Court notes that AKA, likewise, can choose to address this issue preemptively as
the case moves forward by retracting the letters to Ms. Compton and Ms. Cofield.
For the foregoing reasons, the Court denies Plaintiffs’ oral motion for sanctions
without prejudice. A memorializing Order accompanies this Memorandum Opinion.
DATE: April 11, 2013
ROSEMARY M. COLLYER
United States District Judge
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