Master v. Country Club of Landfall, — S.E.2d — (2018)
Does due process require a hearing before an impartial tribunal (Board)? NO!!!
Masters was a member a private golf club within his HOA. The golf club (“Club”) sought to make significant changes to its bylaws. Masters opposed the changes and wrote and sent a series of emails to other members claiming the proposed changes were unethical and immoral. Specifically, within the emails Masters “made references to Hitler, Barabbas, Jesus and slavery.” After several Club members complained, the Board concluded that Master’s actions were “insulting and inappropriate and had no place within the Club.” As a result they voted unanimously to terminate his membership. In accordance with the Rules the president referred the matter to a hearing panel. Master’s was given notice of the hearing and although he did not appear, his attorney did attend and argued for “suspension” instead of termination, but did not ask any members to recuse themselves. The hearing panel voted to terminate Masters membership and he filed suit.
The appeals court held the following:
- It “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.”
- “[W]hen a plaintiff challenges a voluntary organization’s decision, the case will be dismissed as non-justiciable unless the plaintiff alleges facts showing:
- the decision was inconsistent with due process, or
- the organization engaged in arbitrariness, fraud, or collusion.”
Masters did not argue that the Club’s decision “was arbitrary, fraudulent, or collusive,” so the court only looked at whether it was “inconsistent with due process.”
- “Private voluntary organizations are not required to provide their members with the full substantive and procedural due process protections afforded under the United States Constitution;” and
- The Club was only required to:
- “follow their own internal rules and procedures, and”
- “adhere to principles of fundamental fairness by providing notice and an opportunity to be heard.”
Lessons to be Learned:
- Grievance Committees can be a very effective tool of Associations;
- If you are going to rely on your Grievance Committee, make sure that your association documents clearly identify the due process requirements; and
- Extreme positions (e.g. comparing someone to Hitler) is NEVER a good idea.