The Difficulty of Suing Private Associations in Court

Voluntary associations provide many important civil and cultural functions. When disagreements arise over an association's internal rules, can an aggrieved party sue forbreach of contract? An unusual case playing out before the New York courts offers some insight on this question.

Man Banned from Dog Shows Cannot Claim Breach of Contract

Although this case involves New York courts and law, the underlying incident took place in Illinois. In December 2010, a local kennel club held a dog show. The kennel club belonged to a larger organization, the American Kennel Club (AKC), which provided a standardized entry form for the local dog show.

During the Illinois dog show, local organizers claimed a man improperly fed “a dog medication that a veterinarian identified as having the potential to adversely affect the dog's performance and health.” Witnesses claimed the man intentionally “poisoned” the dog in order to help his girlfriend's dog win the show.

Following this incident, the AKC banned the man from attending or participating in its events for five years. Separately, local prosecutors in Illinoischarged the man with “misdemeanor charges including animal cruelty and attempted criminal damage to property.” Following a bench trial in November 2011, a judge found the man not guilty. This verdict did not alter or affect the AKC suspension.

Accordingly, the man sued the AKC and other parties in Manhattan Supreme Court alleging, among other things, breach of contract. (AKC is based in New York City.) He claimed AKC failed to follow its own internal rules and guidelines in suspending him, thereby violating the “contract” created when his girlfriend entered her dogs in the show and signed the entry form.

The New York courts did not see it that way. According to aManhattan Supreme Court judge, “Plaintiffs' complaint does not identify an AKC rule or procedural requirement which prohibits the AKC from upholding a disciplinary hearing held while a related criminal case is pending.” Nothing in the entry form obligated AKC to reconsider the man's case after he was cleared of any criminal wrongdoing. In short, the local entry form, standing on its own, did not create a contract binding AKC to any particular action with respect to enforcement of its own rules.

Upholding the Supreme Court, theAppellate Division, First Department, added New York “courts are reluctant to interfere with the internal disciplinary affairs of a private voluntary association such as AKC, and a breach of contract cause of action is not the proper vehicle for a claim that such an association has failed to fulfill obligations imposed by its internal rules.”

Need Help With a Contract?

An important lesson from the above case is to never assume a contract exists just because you participate in an event or belong to a private association. New York law has very specific requirements for forming a binding contract. An experienced New York business attorney can advise you on all aspects of contracts, including drafting and review, and if necessary, litigation to enforce a breach. Contact the offices of Waldhauser & Nisar, LLP, today if you would like to speak with an attorney right away.