Still No Resolution after Grocery Co-op Sevananda Sues Members (UPDATE 1)


(APN) ATLANTA — The issues surrounding the recent election for Members of the Board of Directors of grocery cooperative Sevananda remain unresolved, months after Sevananda sued three of its members: Felton Eaddy, Abdullah Muqtasid, and Brian Sherman; and Sherman countersued.

The promise of cooperative enterprise, as an alternative to the top-down corporate model, is one of shared profits, shared responsibility, and democratization of the workplace.  

At Sevananda, for example, individuals pay 120 dollars over six years to become a member of Sevananda; this entitles them to a monthly ten percent discount on groceries and a percentage of the store’s profits, if any, every year.  Sevananda has over four thousand member-owners in the Atlanta area.

In addition, any Member-owners of Sevananda can serve in leadership positions on its Board of Directors or on its various committees, such as the Nominating Committee.

But what happens when the Nominating Committee conducts an election but the Board of Directors seizes the ballot box, preventing the tabulation of the results?  In this case, the answers appears to be still no resolution after months of costly litigation.

All Members-owners of the co-op bear the cost of the litigation, presumably thousands of dollars, although Ahjzah Simons, Marketing Director for Sevananda, did not return voice messages left on her work and personal cell phones seeking comment.

And for Members like the three who were sued, they are paying for both sides of the litigation.  Sherman has incurred thousands of dollars in legal expenses, he told Atlanta Progressive News.

On September 14, 2012, the parties agreed to a Mutual Voluntary Stipulation of Dismissal without Prejudice, after which the case was dismissed.  The parties negotiated a Consent Decree in mediation.

One of the conditions of the mediation was that Sherman was entitled to submit one article for publication in Sevananda’s member newsletter, giving his side of the story.

The case was before DeKalb County Superior Court Judge Cynthia Becker.

According to Sherman, at one point, Judge Becker told the parties that they needed to settle the case because she had more important matters to attend to and did not have time for this case.

According to Sevananda, the dispute stems back from what some members of Sevananda saw as an effort by management to possibly begin selling meat as well as alcohol products at the otherwise vegetarian store, located in Atlanta’s Little Five Points community.

According to Sevananda’s Complaint, filed July 24, 2012, “The General Manager’s request for comments was interpreted as a suggestion that Sevananda begin selling certain products that were not viewed favorably by some members and non-members who became members for the sole purpose of retaliating against this request for comments.”

Sevananda sued Eaddy, Muqtsaid, and Sherman in their official capacities as members of the Nominating Committee, although Muqtsaid was never served with a copy of the lawsuit, according to court records reviewed by APN.

“Retaliating members have attempted to improperly influence the policies and governance of Sevananda by using the Nominating Committee to shape the composition of the Board and otherwise influence the goals and purposes of Sevananda,” Sevananda wrote.

Attorney Brian Spears represented Sherman in the case.

Sherman countersued Sevananda, seeking declaratory judgment that “None of the three persons identified as being hold over members of the Board of Directors are lawfully holding their positions and are subject to immediate removal.”

Sherman also sought that the Court grant a writ of mandamus, requiring the “immediate  enforcement of the By-laws of Sevananda, by the immediate release of the ballot box by the Board of Directors and the relinquishment of said ballot box to the Nominating Committee so that the Nominating Committee may carry out its authorized responsibilities pursuant to the Bylaws  to tabulate the votes and announce the results.”

“From June 24th to July 10th [2012] Sevananda member-owners voted for new board members.  The Nominating Committee is mandated by Sevananda’s bylaws to count the votes, but on July 13 the Board of Directors seized the ballot box, preventing the vote count,” Sherman wrote in his article in the Sevananda newsletter.

“The Nominating Committee is separate from the Board of Directors.  The two, according to the bylaws, operate independently of each other.  This prevents board incumbents from manipulating the election.  However, this year, the board violated this separation by interfering in the election process several times,” Sherman wrote.

“You may not have heard about this because the board has denied the Nominating Committee any channel of communication with member-owners.  You are reading this article only because it’s part of a DeKalb County court order giving us one article in Co-Options and a flyer on the store’s bulletin board,” Sherman wrote.

“This happened because the board of directors sued three of the six Nominating Committee members [Abdullah Muqtasid, Felton Eaddy, Brian Sherman].  The board used Sevananda’s  money to sue us; we have to use our own funds [already several thousand dollars] to defend against bogus charges about how the Nominating Committee administered the election,” Sherman wrote.

“We don’t know what the board spent on lawyers because, contrary to law and cooperative principles, most Sevananda member-owners are denied access to the information,” Sherman wrote.

“We started [the elections process] by recruiting potential candidates.  Our deadline was March 15.  We reviewed every applicant who met the deadline.  The review included interviews,” Sherman wrote.

“Three applicants applied several weeks late.  We thought it would have been unfair to accept their applications, even though one was a current board member and another a previous board member,” Sherman wrote.

“We ended up with an excellent slate of six ‘regular’ candidates,” Sherman wrote.

“Our biggest obstacle was Sevananda’s board of directors.  Even though the Nominating Committee is autonomous from the board, the board interfered by denying the Nominating Committee access to the services of Sevananda employees to carry out our functions,” Sherman wrote.

“For a two-week period in May and June, the board canceled all election activities.   This sabotaged our plans for in-store meet-the-candidates events,” Sherman wrote.

“The board erroneously claimed the right to force a particular ballot format even though the bylaws stipulate the Nominating Committee prepares the ballot.   The board wanted to give privileges to the three late applicants by having their names on the ballot, circumventing the ‘review and recommend’ responsibility of the Nominating Committee,” Sherman wrote.

“Even though we believed it unfair of the board to impose additional candidates, we acquiesced and printed the latecomers’ statements in the same booklet as the six regular candidates,” Sherman wrote.

“We set July 15 to count the votes, but two days earlier the board seized the ballots, never specifying why.  The only candidate we know of who had any complaints after the election process was one of the three who missed the deadline.  He was also the president of the board of directors,” Sherman wrote, referring to Calvin Vismale.

“Mediation occurred on October 1.   We proposed Count the Ballots and seat the winners.  The board rejected this.  We proposed a compromise: fill the three open slots with the highest vote-getters, and let Calvin Vismale finish the expired term of a resigned board member, even though Mr. Vismale applied late, was never interviewed, and as board president had interfered in the election process,” Sherman wrote.

“The board rejected our compromise.  So now we have a board with only four legitimate directors plus two whose terms expired in July but illegally stay on, and three empty seats.  One vacancy is because the board forced Gloria Hawkins-Wynn off the board for being sympathetic to the Nominating Committee,” Sherman wrote.

“In 2009, the same board president seized the ballot box.   It took member-owners thirteen months to get it back,” Sherman wrote.


UPDATE: This version corrects the spelling of the last name of Abdullah Muqtasid.