April 3, 2012

Internal Appeal Procedures and Dispute Resolution Standards Can Reduce Lawsuits

The Washington Court of Appeals recently issued an unpublished opinion relating to the Prince Hall Grand Lodge of Free & Accepted Masons of Washington.  A member of the Grand Lodge was suspended after he raised allegations that one of the Grand Masters and the Grand Lodge Entertainment Committee had mismanaged funds.  The member sued to contest that suspension.  However, the Grand Lodge Constitution states that “no member … shall resort to civil courts to establish any right or to redress any grievances arising out of the membership in the Order or connected therewith until … he shall have exhausted the remedies within the Order and in a manner provided by the Constitution, law and regulations of this Grand Lodge.”

The appellate court upheld the requirement that members of the Grand Lodge must exhaust its internal appeal procedures before filing lawsuits.  It emphasized Washington courts’ unwillingness to interfere with private associations’ interpretations of internal rules and procedures unless they are arbitrary and unreasonable.  The court affirmed the dismissal of the member’s lawsuit because he did not pursue the proper appeal procedure (vote of the members at the next annual meeting) before filing it.     

Some Washington condominium and homeowners associations have internal appeal procedures and dispute resolution standards in their original governing documents.  Many others do not.  For those associations in the latter category, amending the declaration or covenants to require exhaustion of internal appeal procedures and fulfillment of dispute resolution requirements (such as mandatory mediation) can help defuse some future disputes with owners before they turn into lawsuits.