Case Law Update: Expelling the Email Warrior From Clubs
Club boards and management are often the targets of members’ critical emails to other members and social media posts, which are often inflammatory. They may view these attacks as improper behavior, as well as divisive and detrimental to the club’s interests and harmony. They may want to expel or otherwise discipline the offending member. The offending member will claim that a member has the right to criticize management and that the board or management took disciplinary action against the member as revenge and to stifle dissent.
In Master v. Country Club of Landfall, a North Carolina appellate court in December 2018 addressed a club’s ability to expel a member for sending an inflammatory email about the board to other members. A club member sent a series of emails to other members in opposition to proposed amendments to the governing bylaws. The member claimed that the proposed amendments were unethical and immoral, using references to Hitler, Barabbas, Jesus and slavery. A Club Hearing Panel that comprised board members and other members expelled the offending member after a hearing at which the member’s attorney, but not the member, attended.
The member sued the club for breach of contract and declaratory relief. The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of the defendant club, which judgment was affirmed by the appellate court. The court explained North Carolina precedent on court review of club disciplinary actions: “[i]t is well established that courts will not interfere with the internal affairs of voluntary associations. A court, therefore, will not determine, as a matter of its own judgment, whether a member should have been suspended or expelled.” Thus, “when a plaintiff challenges a voluntary organization’s decision, the case will be dismissed as non-justiciable unless the plaintiff alleges facts showing (i) the decision was inconsistent with due process, or (ii) the organization engaged in arbitrariness, fraud, or collusion.” (citations omitted)
The plaintiff club member claimed he was not afforded due process because he received notice of a change in the hearing date only three days before the new hearing date. The club claimed the notice was sent to him by email and regular mail a week before the rescheduled hearing date. The court rejected the member’s argument, explaining, “’Private voluntary organizations are not required to provide their members with the full substantive and procedural due process protections afforded under the United States and North Carolina constitutions.’ . . . Rather, private associations are usually only required to ‘(i) follow their own internal rules and procedures, and (ii) adhere to principles of fundamental fairness by providing notice and an opportunity to be heard.’” (citations omitted)
This court decision may provide ammunition for club boards and management to defend themselves against email and social media attacks they believe “cross the line” and should give club members reason to pause before clicking “Send.”