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National Association for Advancement of Colored People v. Bass

Court of Appeals of Arkansas, Division II

March 15, 2017

NATIONAL ASSOCIATION FOR THE ADVANCEMENT OF COLORED PEOPLE APPELLANT
v.
HUBERT BASS, MEMBER AND CHAIRMAN OF THE ELECTION SUPERVISORY COMMITTEE OF THE CRITTENDEN COUNTY BRANCH OF THE NAACP APPELLEE

         APPEAL FROM THE CRITTENDEN COUNTY CIRCUIT COURT [NO. 18CV-10-757] HONORABLE VICTOR L. HILL, JUDGE

          Wright, Lindsey & Jennings, LLP, by: Troy A. Price; and Berliner Corcoran & Rowe LLP, by: Melvin White, pro hac vice, for appellant.

          Roy C. Lewellen, for appellee.

          RAYMOND R. ABRAMSON, Judge.

         This case stems from a lengthy and contentious dispute between appellant, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People ("NAACP"), and the Crittenden County Branch of the NAACP ("the Branch"), represented by appellee, Hubert Bass. In 2010, Mr. Bass filed suit in the Crittenden County Circuit Court to resolve a controversy over the election of Branch officers. The NAACP intervened and was ultimately held in contempt for failing to obey court orders. As sanctions, the circuit court directed the NAACP to pay the Branch $100, 000, plus $20, 000 in attorney's fees, and imposed a three-year "pre-clearance" period, during which the NAACP could take no action regarding the Branch without the court's permission. The NAACP appeals the contempt order. We affirm.

         I. Background

         On November 15, 2010, the Branch held an election to choose its local officers. Prior to the election, the incumbent president, Willa Catha-Jones, advised the NAACP's national office that a group of people were trying to "seize" the Branch. Fearing a disruption in the election process, the national office urged NAACP Arkansas State Conference President Dale Charles to oversee the election. Mr. Charles traveled to West Memphis for that purpose but was prevented from monitoring the election by Mr. Bass and others on the Branch's election committee. The election proceeded, and all incumbent officers were defeated, including Willa Catha-Jones.

         Despite the election results, Ms. Catha-Jones refused to relinquish her presidency. The national NAACP apparently supported her stance in a December 2010 letter, which stated that the election was void. This led Mr. Bass to file suit to validate the election results and enjoin any interference with the new officers' installation. Mr. Bass listed Ms. Catha-Jones and the Branch as defendants but did not name the national NAACP as a party.

         After a hearing, the circuit court issued a temporary injunction on February 17, 2011, confirming the election results and stating that "the unilateral claim of a third party that the election is void does not qualify to void the election." The court then listed the roster of newly elected officers, including the new Branch president, Mr. Shabaka Afrika.[1]

         On March 9, 2011, the NAACP's national office sent a letter to Mr. Afrika stating that the election was "suspended"; that new elections had been scheduled; and that the Branch's former officers would "continue to serve." The court learned of the letter and entered an order on March 31, 2011, stating that persons "outside Crittenden County" were attempting to overturn the court's rulings in concert with Ms. Catha-Jones. The court warned that those in league with Ms. Catha-Jones acted at their own peril and invited the NAACP to come before the court to explain its actions.

         The following day, April 1, 2011, the NAACP filed a motion to intervene in the case. The motion was granted on April 12, 2011. In the interim the NAACP sent a letter to Mr. Afrika on April 8, 2011, suspending his membership and accusing him of misrepresenting himself as president of the Branch.

         Months later, on October 13, 2011, the court entered an order strongly suggesting that the NAACP resolve the case by recognizing the legitimacy of the 2010 election and granting the Branch all rights and privileges enjoyed by a branch in good standing. The court's suggestion apparently fell on deaf ears because, on October 26, 2011, the NAACP's chief operating officer, Roger Vann, distributed a letter declaring that the national board of directors had voted to suspend the Branch's charter; that the Branch had "no officers"; and that the Branch was "not in good standing." The letter bore the salutation, "Dear NAACP Member" and was purportedly sent to the Branch membership. The letter was also copied to various state and national NAACP officials.

         In response to the letter, Mr. Bass filed a motion for an ex parte injunction to prevent the suspension of the Branch's charter and Mr. Afrika's membership. The court granted the motion in a November 4, 2011 order. The order recited that the NAACP's October 26, 2011 letter was in "direct and flagrant contravention of the court's previous orders" and constituted "an act of contempt" for which sanctions would be considered. The court additionally stated:

To make it clear, just in case further clarification is required:
Neither the intervenor [the NAACP], its officers, agents, attorneys, or employees, or anyone else acting on their behalf or in concert with them has any authority to make any determinations regarding the Crittenden County Branch of the NAACP, its status, the status or legitimacy of any of its members or officers, or any other matter until this court, or a court with appellate authority over this court, says otherwise.

         The NAACP filed a motion to vacate the order, which the court denied on December 22, 2011.[2]

         Approximately eighteen months later, at an August 29, 2013 hearing, Mr. Bass's counsel asked the NAACP to issue a letter reinstating the Branch and its membership. Counsel argued that the NAACP had continued to deny the Branch's legitimacy, citing as proof the letters suspending the Branch's charter and Mr. Afrika's membership as well as a 2012 incident in which Branch members were not allowed to vote at the state convention. The NAACP declined to write a letter but stipulated in court that the Branch and Mr. Afrika's membership were "in good standing" and further asked that all parties be required to abide by the NAACP's constitution and bylaws. The court stated that it would "take the stipulation" and draft a proposed order. That order, which will be discussed in greater detail, would not be entered until October 27, 2014.

         In the intervening months, conflict between the NAACP and the Branch persisted. In September 2013, the Branch was denied full participation at the state convention, purportedly because it had failed to file year-end and quarterly reports, as required by NAACP bylaws. Additionally, the NAACP sent letters to the Branch on November 21, 2013, and March 6, 2014, stating that the Branch was "revoked." These letters also requested a greater share of the ...


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