Chavis asks court to block firing by NAACP

August 23, 1994|By James Bock | James Bock,Sun Staff Writer Sun staff writers Norris B. West and Ivan Penn contributed to this article.

In a surprise move, lawyers for ousted NAACP Executive Director Benjamin F. Chavis Jr. asked a Washington judge last night to block the civil rights group from firing him and naming an interim replacement.

Willie Abrams, an NAACP assistant general counsel, said Judge Luke C. Moore of District of Columbia Superior Court called NAACP lawyers about 6:40 p.m. to say that attorneys for Dr. Chavis were in his chambers seeking a temporary restraining order.

Judge Moore declined to issue the order on the spot, but scheduled a hearing for this morning, Mr. Abrams said.

The NAACP board "wrongfully and unlawfully" fired Dr. Chavis Saturday because he was given neither adequate notice nor a formal hearing, as stipulated by the NAACP constitution and parliamentary procedure, the lawyers contend in a complaint filed with Judge Moore. The court papers were made available by NAACP attorneys.

Unless the firing is immediately blocked, they argue, Dr. Chavis will "suffer irreparable injury to his good name and national reputation."

They also said the 46-year-old civil rights activist would be "unemployable in his area of expertise" and be put in the "untenable position of not being able to support his family."

The fired NAACP leader owns a $478,000 house in Howard County and is making payments on a $428,000 mortgage, according to land records. Dr. Chavis had a three-year contract that paid about $200,000 a year.

Dr. Chavis' lawyers asked the judge to block the NAACP from: firing Dr. Chavis; preventing him from running the NAACP; disparaging his reputation; conducting a hearing to dismiss him; and naming an interim or permanent replacement as executive director.

Last night, at a "town meeting" at Dunbar High School in East Baltimore, Dr. Chavis called his firing a "crucifixion" that came 16 1/2 months after he was hired on Good Friday in 1993. He said he has been resurrected and predicted revelations would come today. "I believe something is going to happen [today]," he said. "I can't say what, but I sense it. On Tuesday morning, something will happen that will bring greater light to what happened Saturday."

The NAACP board fired Dr. Chavis after he agreed to pay a former employee up to $332,400 -- without informing the board or the NAACP general counsel -- to head off a threatened lawsuit. Mary E. Stansel, the fired employee, has accused him of employment discrimination, sexual harassment and wrongful discharge.

Abbey G. Hairston, a lawyer for Dr. Chavis in both the Stansel and the firing cases, wouldn't comment late last night.

Mr. Abrams, who received a copy of the complaint about 8 p.m., said he didn't know why the Chavis attorneys had gone to a judge in Washington. The NAACP has headquarters in Baltimore and an office in Washington.

The NAACP lawyer said the court action came as a surprise. The NAACP had said it would negotiate a severance package with Dr. Chavis.

"Nobody thought he would really seek to drag this out," Mr. Abrams said. "He knows the NAACP has to get moving and get its financial house in order."

The NAACP faces a deficit of more than $3 million, sources say.

The suit filed last night alleges that Dr. Chavis was fired without a "full adversarial hearing" as provided for by the NAACP constitution and Robert's Rules of Order.

Instead, the complaint alleges, Dr. Chavis "was merely afforded an opportunity to provide a brief statement as to his position" as well as to respond to board members' questions. Board members say Dr. Chavis spoke at length and that the questioning lasted more than an hour.

"He was given all kinds of time," board member Enolia McMillan said Sunday. "I could have given my life history in that length of time."

When the board went into executive session, neither Dr. Chavis nor his lawyers were allowed to stay in the room, the suit alleges.

The NAACP also failed to take a "rising vote" of board members to see whether a two-thirds margin was obtained, according to the complaint.

Dr. Chavis' lawyers argued that he was an ordained minister "at the forefront of the civil rights movement" who, before his ouster, "enjoyed a reputation for high integrity, good character and sound judgment."

Mr. Abrams said the NAACP general counsel and lawyers from the Baltimore firm of Gordon, Feinblatt, Rothman, Hoffberger & Hollander would dispute the need for a temporary restraining order in court today.

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