Goldmann, Freund and Conford. The opinion of the court was delivered by Conford, J.A.D.
[40 NJSuper Page 250] The first question to be decided here is whether the plaintiffs were expelled, individually and as a subordinate chapter, from the Order of the Eastern Star,
a fraternal organization of New Jersey, or, rather, whether they were denied admission thereto. As we shall show, the case presented is essentially one of exclusion rather than expulsion. On this premise, the second and principal question brought to focus by our analysis of the issues is whether and in what circumstances members of a strictly fraternal organization are liable in damages to aspirants to membership therein for willful and concerted activity successfully carried on within the organization to keep them from being admitted.
The plaintiffs, some 58 individuals residing in or near Mercer County, had, for about three years prior to 1953, been endeavoring to gain admission to the order as a new chapter in the Seventh District, which then comprised twelve chapters in the vicinity of Trenton. Some of them were already affiliated with other chapters. Most of the plaintiffs are women. Qualifications for membership in the Eastern Star for a female consist of relationship in specified degree to a member of the Masonic fraternity in good standing; for a male, that he be a Mason in good standing. Most of the defendants, who number seven, are members and past or present officers of existing chapters in District 7. An understanding of the history of plaintiffs' efforts to obtain admission as a new chapter and of the nature of the campaign of resistance attributed to the defendants requires some reference to the constitution and by-laws of the Grand Chapter (statewide governing body).
The absolute admission of a new chapter into the order requires the issuance of a charter by the Grand Chapter. A proposed new chapter may, however, be formed (instituted) and begin its work within the order prior to the issuance of a charter, upon dispensation by the Most Worthy Grand Patron, who, in conjunction with the Most Worthy Grand Matron, is the chief executive officer of the Grand Chapter. Written notice of any petition for dispensation is required to be given within ten days to all chapters in the district of the proposed new chapter. Within 30 days each such chapter is required to notify the Grand Patron of its position
on the application; and, if it is opposed, to state the reasons therefor. Objections are required to be referred to the Committee on Dispensation and Charters, which, together with the Grand Matron, investigates the objections and attempts to solve them harmoniously. If there are no objections, the Grand Patron may issue the dispensation, and institution then takes place. This operates to terminate the prior membership in any other chapter of any individual in the new chapter. Every chapter under dispensation must present a petition for a charter to the Grand Chapter at its next annual session held not less than sixty days subsequent to institution. The petition is submitted to the committee aforementioned, and "the Grand Chapter may grant or deny the petition or it may grant a continuance of the dispensation until the next annual session."
Many of the present plaintiffs, as a group, applied for a dispensation to form the proposed Marshall Chapter in 1950. Upon adverse report of the Committee on Dispensation and Charters, dispensation was withheld. Another petition by the same group, styled the proposed Emma E. Ferrier Chapter, was filed in December, 1951, and at the annual session of the Grand Chapter in May 1952 a report of the Committee on Dispensation and Charters recommending that the petition be laid over for further consideration was approved. On July 31, 1952 the same group, now under the name of Mercer Chapter, filed another petition with Hector E. MacDonald, Most Worthy Grand Patron. The following account of further events is culled from answers to interrogatories and extensive depositions taken from all of the defendants, many of the plaintiffs, and from others, giving the plaintiffs the benefit of all reasonable inferences and of conflicts of fact.
On his way to a meeting of the proposed chapter in August 1952 MacDonald visited the home of the defendant Bertha Leatham, Grand Secretary of the Grand Chapter, a past Grand Matron of the Grand Chapter, and a member of Victory Chapter in the Seventh District. She was disturbed about the prospect of a dispensation being issued to the new
group. She told MacDonald that the proposed Worthy Patron of the new chapter, Wesley Van Buskirk, had insulted a past Grand Matron of the order, had once appeared at her chapter and there called her a liar, and had been in trouble over a traffic violation. She said she hoped there would never be a new chapter in the Seventh District. Van Buskirk testified that at a meeting of Victory Chapter in 1950, when it was considering the application of the proposed Marshall Chapter, Bertha Leatham stated that there was no need for another chapter in the Seventh District and that the applicants were unfit and quarrelsome; and that she told him that he had lied to her and that there would never be another chapter formed in the Seventh District as long as she lived.
MacDonald called a meeting at Princeton, September 1, 1952, of all the patrons, matrons and associate matrons of the chapters in the Seventh District and discussed with them an analysis he had made indicating the capacity of the district to absorb a new chapter. During the month of September 1952, however, he received letters from every chapter in the district stating opposition to the grant of a dispensation. The same group of Seventh District leaders, including many persons not defendants in this action, met again at Princeton September 28, 1952, to further the opposition to the dispensation. MacDonald asked them for specific objections to the membership of the new group, and the defendant William D. Morgan, a member and past patron of Nottingham Chapter in the Seventh District, said, "Would you put a rotten apple in a barrel of apples?"
On November 9, 1952, at a meeting in Trenton of the patrons, matrons and associate matrons of the Seventh District, a discussion of the proposed Mercer Chapter ensued. The defendant Clifford Harbourt, a past Grand Patron of the Grand Chapter and a member of Nottingham Chapter, was chosen as chairman of the movement to prevent its admission. Thereafter a mass protest meeting was planned. In response to a letter from Harbourt inviting him to the mass meeting, MacDonald wrote advising that he saw no purpose in doing so, that the leaders of the new chapter were
Master Masons and Eastern Star members in good standing; that the "group action" by the Seventh District chapters was unwarranted and showed "a vicious intent to violate the pledge" not to speak evil or perform acts of unkindness or injustice to a sister or brother; and that institution of the new chapter would take place December 15, 1952. On November 16, 1952 the district mass meeting was held at the War Memorial Building in Trenton. All past grand officers were invited. There was a large attendance. Harbourt presided. The defendants John Palmer, past patron of a Trenton chapter, Isabelle Hickman, past matron of a Seventh District chapter, and Harbourt, took an active part in developing the opposition to the new chapter. The primary basis for the objections voiced was that an additional chapter was not needed in the district. The point was also made that a dispensation would be contrary to the action of the last session of the Grand Chapter which had laid the matter over for a year. A member of the Grand Chapter Committee on Dispensation and Charters was asked to report adversely to the forthcoming annual session of the Grand Chapter. Palmer stated that 3,000 members (the total membership in the Seventh District) had voted against the charter, apparently referring to the resolutions of opposition by all the chapters; also that the situation was "deteriorating into one of quantity rather than quality." Isabelle Hickman said: "We will have to stand them from December to May and that will be the end of it." On her motion it was resolved to communicate the opposition of the Seventh District to all of the chapters in the state.
On December 10, 1952 a letter was composed at a meeting of patrons, matrons and associate matrons of the Seventh District chapters and sent out under the heading, "Twelve Chapters of the Seventh District," to all other chapters. Isabelle Hickman participated in its preparation, and William Morgan signed it as a Worthy Patron. It referred to the forthcoming institution and expressed deep grief and shock that "in spite of overwhelming opposition * * * it is being forced upon us." It implied the new chapter was
not "needed" and that its institution was not "in the true spirit" of the order. It stated none of the members of the Seventh District chapters would attend the institution. The dispensation was issued by the Grand Patron, with the concurrence of the Grand Matron, and the Mercer Chapter was instituted December 15, 1952.
Another meeting of the Seventh District leadership took place in April, 1953, apparently to organize the presentation of the case against the grant of charter at the annual Grand Chapter session scheduled for May, 1953. Some of the defendants more euphemistically described the purpose as being to prevent confusion and unmannerliness at the Grand Chapter.
At the annual grand session at Atlantic City, May 21, 1953, the Committee on Dispensation and Charters reported concurrence in the recommendation for a grant of charter by the Grand Patron and Grand Matron. There was extended discussion of the matter on the floor. The plaintiffs emphasize the following statements and actions by defendants. The defendant Hickman read a letter which had been sent to MacDonald by Darcy Chapter in September 1952, objecting to the new chapter and stating that the same group had been turned down before and that "a leopard doesn't change his spots." She was also quoted as having said the chapter "was born of untruthfulness, unkindness, without charity" and that the applicants were "unfit to be Eastern Star." The defendant Emily Strachan said Van Buskirk was "impetuous, belligerent and irresponsible," that the leaders of the proposed chapter were "not conducive to harmony" which had existed in the district and that the members were not "Eastern Star material." The defendant Morgan stated that 50% of the population of Trenton was "Catholic" and 17% "colored" and that since neither of these categories joined the Eastern Star, the remaining population of the Trenton area was not sufficient to require more chapters. According to plaintiff Caroline Trautwein, one of the prime movers in the Mercer Chapter, Morgan also stated that "if we were going to fill our chapter with Catholics it wasn't right,"
but shortly after in her deposition she indicated that Morgan "was inferring" the foregoing. None of the eight other plaintiffs or of the eleven other witnesses who were present at and testified concerning the events of the grand session mentioned the last remark attributed by Trautwein to Morgan. An answer to interrogatories, executed by one plaintiff on behalf of all, states, on information and belief, that defendants Hickman, Leatham, Harbourt, Palmer, Morgan and Strachan "instituted a whispering campaign, the gist of which was that Mercer Chapter had a Catholic sponsor and that some of the proposed members were Catholic." At the grand session Morgan also described the new group as the "scum" or the "scrapings" from the bottom of the barrel which would spoil the barrel of "good apples." Harbourt said that he was a good judge of character and that the plaintiffs, some of whom in attendance he pointed out, were not Eastern Star material. He said 3,000 people had voted against the chapter and would resign if the charter were granted. At the meeting door Palmer pointed out some of the plaintiffs to other delegates and referred to them as the "riff-raff" of Mercer County. During the meeting he paced the aisles and spoke to groups of delegates.
Speaking in favor of granting the charter, in addition to the dispensation committee chairman, were the Grand Patron and Grand Matron. A standing vote was taken, and the motion to grant the charter was declared lost. Thereupon a motion was made and carried that "demits" (in the nature of certificates of severance) be granted to all the members of Mercer Chapter U.D. [under dispensation], and some months later the defendant Anna Carroll, Associate Grand Matron at the time of the grand session, mailed them out, being Grand Matron at the time. More as to this. This defendant, who was not in the Seventh District, had no other connection with the activities of the other defendants complained of herein.
Each of the defendants except Palmer was asked on depositions and answered in the negative the question as to whether he or she knew ...