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United Supreme Council v. United Supreme Council of Ancient Accepted Scottish Rite for 33 Degree of Freemasonry

United States District Court, E.D. Virginia, Alexandria Division

March 28, 2017



          Liam O'Grady, United States District Judge.

         Plaintiffs United Supreme Council, 33 Degree of the Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite of Freemasonry, Prince Hall Affiliation, Southern Jurisdiction of the United States ("USC-SJ Tennessee" or "USC-SJ I") and its Washington DC-based predecessor (USC-SJ Predecessor) have brought suit against Defendants United Supreme Council of the Ancient Accepted Scottish Rite for the 33 Degree of Freemasonry, Southern Jurisdiction, Prince Hall Affiliated (USC-SJ II), Ralph Slaughter, Joseph Williams, the Most Worshipful Prince Hall Grand Lodge of Virginia, Free and Accepted Masons, Incorporated ("Grand Lodge"), Roger Brown, and Michael Parris. After a hearing and a full round of briefing, Plaintiffs' original complaint was dismissed without prejudice on December 2, 2016 (Dkt. No. 43). The First Amended Complaint was filed on January 3, 2017.

         The Defendants are grouped into two categories and have filed two separate motions to dismiss. The first motion to dismiss (Dkt. No. 48) was filed by Defendants Roger Brown and the Grand Lodge ("Grand Lodge Defendants"). The second motion to dismiss (Dkt. No. 53) was filed by the other three Defendants: USC-SJ II, Parris, Slaughter, and Williams (USC-SJII Defendants). After reviewing the briefing, and for the reasons that follow, the Court hereby GRANTS IN PART and DENIES IN PART Defendants' motions to dismiss. Specifically, the motions are DENIED with respect to Count I (unfair competition); Count II (conspiracy to commit unfair competition); Count V (tortious interference); Count VI (conspiracy to commit tortious interference); Count IX (copyright infringement); and Count X (trademark infringement). The Motion is hereby GRANTED in all other respects.

         I. BACKGROUND

         A. Masonic History

         USC-SJ Tennessee or its predecessors in interest have operated as Ancient Accepted Scottish Rite of Freemasonry organizations since 1854. The immediate predecessor in interest to USC-SJ Tennessee was the USC of the Sovereign Grand Inspectors General of the Thirty-Third and Last Degree of the Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite of Freemasonry for the Southern Jurisdiction of the United States (USC Predecessor), which was incorporated in 1920 under the laws of the District of Columbia. USC Predecessor amended its name in 1964, and it remains a corporation in good standing in D.C. USC-SJ Tennessee and USC Predecessor are plaintiffs in this action.

         In 1880, there were five Supreme Councils of the Prince Hall Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite Masons in existence. In 1881, the Councils convened and adopted a plan by which they merged into two jurisdictions; the New York and Philadelphia councils merged into the Supreme Council for the "Northern Jurisdiction" and the Baltimore and Washington, D.C. Councils formed the Supreme Council for the "Southern Jurisdiction, " which included Virginia. When a Council has a state "within its jurisdiction, " Plaintiffs allege that the Council "ha[s] the right to establish its Bodies within the extension of that State's jurisdictional limits and have exclusive jurisdiction thereof." Under this compact, the existing territories were divided between the two Supreme Councils, with any open territories declared "open territory" that was subject to invasion by any Prince Hall Affiliated Masonic Jurisdiction of the symbolic or first three degrees.[1]

         The precise hierarchy of the Prince Hall Freemasons is not clear from the Complaint. As is relevant for the purposes of this motion, USC-SJI maintains that it has "exclusive authority within [the Southern Jurisdiction] to form, charter and administer unincorporated 'Subordinate Bodies' including, but [sic] limited to, the exclusive authority to confer the Fourth Degree ('Secret Master') through the Thirty Third and Last Degree" ("Grand Inspector General") of Masonry.[2]

         B. Defendants' Actions

         The Amended Complaint essentially alleges six acts that support its claims for relief. The first alleged wrongful act came on the tails of an attempted coup that occurred on October 10, 2015 at an annual meeting of Plaintiff USC-SJ Tennessee. At that meeting, Defendants Slaughter and Williams, along with non-party Alvin Wilkins, Sr., attempted to gain control of USC-SJ Tennessee by voting to replace the existing "Sovereign Grand Commander Deary Vaughn." This attempt was unsuccessful, and on October 16, 2015, six days after their coup failed, Slaughter, Williams, and Wilkins incorporated USC-SJ II under the name "United Supreme Council of the Ancient Accepted Scottish Rite for the 33 Degree of Freemasonry, Southern Jurisdiction, Prince Hall Affiliated." Plaintiffs allege that this name "is the same if not substantially and significantly similar, to the name of Plaintiff [USC-SJ I]." Plaintiffs further allege that the name was chosen "for the sole and exclusive purpose of trading upon, usurping, fiscally capitalizing upon and converting the goodwill, historicity, character and reputation of Plaintiffs."

         Second, after establishing the new organization, Defendants began meeting to discuss the "implementation of Defendant's takeover of Plaintiffs' Virginia operations." These meetings took place during the time period of November 6-20, 2015. In particular, on November 6, Parris met with Brown and non-party Larry D. Christian, who was "an influential former CEO/Grand Master of the Grand Lodge." The meeting was took place during an "official, ceremonial business meeting of Plaintiffs' subordinate body in Richmond, VA, known as Richmond Consistory No. 22A." The meeting was "conducted under Plaintiffs' Constitution and utilize[ed] Plaintiffs' Trademarks and other assets." At this meeting, Parris, Slaughter and Williams lead a discussion regarding their plan to "takeover Plaintiffs Virginia operations by usurping Plaintiffs' name, Trademarks, Copyrighted Material, financial accounts and other assets ..." Allegedly, Brown "endorsed this concept [and took] the essence of the scheme back to the officers of [the Grand Lodge]." These meetings culminated in Parris formally appearing before the officers of the Grand Lodge in Roanoake on November 21, 2015. At this meeting, Parris requested fraternal recognition for USC-SJ II.

         Third, Defendants induced members to switch allegiances. For example, shortly after the coup, Defendant Parris (who was then Plaintiffs' Deputy of the Orient of Virginia) "defected to and joined Defendants" in their new order. On November 29, 2015, Defendant Parris then published a "Letter of Dispensation" on Plaintiffs' letterhead that encouraged Plaintiffs' members and its Subordinate Bodies to abandon Plaintiffs in lieu of Defendant USC-SJ II. In this letter, Parris stated that an "overwhelming majority" of Plaintiffs' members voted to join Defendant USC-SJ II. According to the complaint, there was no such vote, and "Plaintiffs' Constitution ... did not allow the taking of any such vote regarding the grant of loyalty to a competing United Supreme Council." Indeed, by the terms of the Constitution, "Plaintiffs' members vow to maintain their loyalty to no United Supreme Council other than Plaintiffs within the Southern Jurisdiction." These activities continued until around March 4, 2016, and consisted of Defendants Parris and/or Brown meeting with Plaintiffs' Subordinate Bodies and advising them to withdraw from USC-SJ I. Under the terms of Plaintiffs' Constitution, "all papers, rituals, monies, rules regulations [sic], assets, and other real or personal property must be returned to Plaintiffs" upon the dissolution of any subordinate body.

         Fourth, Plaintiffs allege that Defendants have attempted to take control of "certain financial banking accounts owned and controlled by [Plaintiffs]". As an example, Plaintiffs recite that, in Louisiana, one of USC-SJ Tennessee's subsidiary organizations, the Pelican Council on Deliberation (the "PCOD"), is involved in a legal challenge regarding its bank account at First NBC Bank. The account, which includes a total sum of approximately $27, 446.26, is currently the subject of a judicial proceeding in Louisiana.[3] In addition, Defendants, through their agents Charles V. Hargrave Jr. and Ernest Hardy, Jr., attempted to "invade and/or usurp three (3) banking accounts or securities owned by Plaintiffs, or their Subordinate Body - Alpha & Omega Consistory #9, and kept by the Wells Fargo Bank, Church and High Street, Portsmouth, VA." As a result, on May 16, 2016, Wells Fargo restricted access to the assets because it had "received conflicting information regarding individuals authorized to transact on the business accounts." In addition, "agents (indicated as account signors) of Defendant USC-SJII have successfully misappropriated" seven separate accounts belonging to Plaintiffs' subordinate bodies. The Amended Complaint alleges that the amount of money misappropriated by Defendants' "conspiracy ... exceeds $100, 000."

         Fifth, as evidence of the conspiracy, Plaintiffs point to a published letter from Roger Brown to Ralph Slaughter on March 3, 2016. This letter granted fraternal recognition of Plaintiff USC-SJ II. Grand Lodge Defs' Mem. in Supp., Ex. A at 1 (Dkt. No. 49-1). It reads:

This Fraternal recognition is being granted to the New and Progressive United Supreme Council in DC because it is the right decision for this Jurisdiction. And, because of an extreme desire to continually promote peace, harmony and love among the Craft in the Jurisdiction of Virginia. Please also be ...

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