U.S. District Court denies fraternity’s motion to dismiss all claims in historic case
A federal judge has ordered that a lawsuit brought by two Georgia men against their fraternity, Alpha Phi Alpha, can go forward. The next phase includes discovery and depositions ahead of a jury trial.
In their federal complaint, members John Funny and Ricky Blalock allege Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity Inc., unlawfully interfered with their right to sue Alpha on state defamation charges. The men say the fraternity is threatening and intimidating them in an effort to force them to drop their defamation lawsuit.
The federal action also alleges the fraternity has without any due process or good cause, suspended both men and imposed harsh sanctions unless they drop their lawsuit. The two men have even been banned from attending funeral rites of deceased members or talking to officers or other members. Funny and Blalock also claim the actions are a breach of contract between them and the fraternity and seek $16 million in collective damages.
In July, U.S. District Judge William M. Ray II, held a hearing on the fraternity’s motion to dismiss the suit on all claims. This week, Aug. 8, the judge issued a written order granting in part and denying in part the fraternity’s request. The ruling now sets up the case for trial unless the parties reach an out-of-court settlement.
Specifically, in his order, Ray ruled that the case could go forward because Funny and Blalock had plausibly alleged that Alpha Phi Alpha had broken Georgia law by committing ultra vires acts against them, including violating the men’s due process rights, during disciplinary actions that ultimately led to the men filing the state defamation lawsuit.
The judge stated, “In fact, according to Plaintiffs’ allegations, the General Convention found that, in dealing with Plaintiffs’ cases, Alpha Phi Alpha failed to conform with its own rules. These allegations are sufficient to show a plausible claim to relief and to put Alpha Phi Alpha on notice as to how it exceeded its authority.”
The court also said the case could proceed because Funny and Blalock made a valid argument that “Alpha Phi Alpha breached a contract between them by breaching its constitution, bylaws, and ‘all other governing documents that imposed binding contractual obligations and duties on the parties.’ While Alpha Phi Alpha contends that it substantially complied with the constitution and bylaws, the Court must accept Plaintiffs’ well-pled allegations that it breached the purported contracts in a number of ways.”
The state defamation case originated in 2019, when Funny and Blalock claimed the fraternity falsely and publicly accused them of sexual misconduct and unlawfully suspended their membership in the organization. They served out the suspension and were reinstated by 2020. However, as their federal complaint alleges, last year in September, and again this February the fraternity suspended them again in retaliation for their lawsuits.
An internal investigation by the fraternity’s highest tribunal, comprised of lawyers and chaired by a Cook County Circuit Court judge from Chicago, found both men innocent of all charges in 2019. The tribunal said there was no credible evidence, the fraternity had violated the men’s due process and its own rules in the process. The tribunal ruled Funny and Blalock should be reinstated and their records expunged. The fraternity ignored the finding and recommendation and suspended both men anyway. Funny and Blalock subsequently filed their defamation lawsuits, which collectively seek $14 million in damages, and are still pending in a Georgia state court.
Alpha boasts being the oldest Black collegiate fraternity since 1906. It’s most famous members initiated are Martin Luther King Jr., and Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. The fraternity built the Martin Luther King Memorial in Washington and has sent multiple Alpha members to the U.S. Congress including the first two Black men U.S. senators.