After more than a year and several requests to repeat the process, lawyers for five members of the Olympia Food Co-op filed a lawsuit in Thurston County Superior Court on Sept. 2, alleging that 16 individual co-op board members willfully violated the co-op’s boycott policies.
Longtime co-op members and opponents of the Israel boycott claimed that it failed to achieve a consensus from the staff when it adopted a boycott and divestment policy against Israel at its July 2010 board meeting, and that the board disregarded a policy requirement that a boycott be nationally recognized, which, lawyers claim, was not the case at the time of the filing.
“What’s crystal clear is that they failed to abide by their boycott policy enacted in May of 1993, which dictates how boycotts are adopted by the co-op,” Seattle attorney Avi Lipman told JTNews. Lipman is co-counsel in the suit, with attorney Robert Sulkin. Both are from the Seattle law firm of McNaul Ebel Nawrot and Helgren PLLC.
In a May 2011 letter to the co-op board, plaintiffs in the suit disclosed they are not asking for a repeal, but a fair process.
“We have repeatedly asked the board to act on these issues in accordance with the rules and bylaws of OFC,” Lipman said. “We agree, of course, that OFC would be bound by the result of such a process.”
Kent and Linda Davis, Jeffrey and Susan Trinin, and Susan Mayer initiated the suit. Susan Trinin is a former president of the co-op’s board of directors. Lawyers are also suing the board members on behalf of the Olympia Food Co-op and its approximately 22,000 members in the greater Olympia community.
“We intend to hold each of [them] personally responsible for these procedural violations and the breaches of [their] duties,” said Lipman.
Sources close to the issue told JTNews they believed that lawyers have taken on this case pro bono. Lipman did not confirm or comment.
Plaintiffs had hoped the board would voluntarily rescind the politically motivated boycott against Israel, engage in a more inclusive discussion, and vote again, but it refused.
“What happened here, as far as we can tell,” Lipman said, “is that the board did an end-run around the staff in violation of the boycott policy, because we believe they knew that the staff wouldn’t reach universal agreement, so they enacted this thing themselves.”
The boycott language, in part, not only bans the co-op from buying Israeli products and investing in the Jewish State, but also bans the co-op from doing business with “non-Israeli companies that sell products or services to Israel that are used to violate the human rights of the Palestinians,” according to the document the board enacted.
If lawyers for the group prevail, any damages awarded by the court would be borne by each individual board member, some of whom no longer serve in that capacity, and would go directly to the co-op.
“My clients stand to gain nothing in this lawsuit,” Lipman said.
Unable to comment on the issues raised by boycott opponents since the lawsuit was filed, Jayne Kaszynski, a board member in outreach and training at the co-op and a staff representative to the board, referred JTNews to an August 2010 blog post for the board’s account of events leading up to and following the adoption of the boycott.
According to its timeline, in 2008, an OFC cashier suggested to a merchandise coordinator there that the co-op comply with an Israel boycott. The coordinator then brought it to the board, per board policy, given the contentious nature of conflicting opinions among staff at the time.
However, the board volleyed the issue back to the coordinator and asked that he or she try to achieve a consensus, as required by the co-op’s boycott policy. Kaszynski was asked to write up a proposal to the staff.
“In the process of consideration of the proposal, several staff members expressed strong support for the proposal,” the board account continued, “while several others indicated that they would block the proposal from moving forward. Most staff expressed opinions somewhere in between.”
In its May 2010 meeting, the board asked and received board consent to have now-former board member and a defendant in the complaint, Harry Levine, write a boycott proposal to “try for staff consent by the July meeting.”
According to the final accounts of the process, although the mixed reactions to the boycott were originally reported to the board, it accepted the boycott proposal in July.
“Since the decision,” states the post, “the Co-op has received hundreds of messages by phone and e-mail, both in support and in opposition to the boycott and to the process used to make the decision.
“We believe that we were operating within the letter of co-op policies when we approved this boycott proposal,” it concluded. “After listening to member concerns we agree that these policies could be improved.”
The board’s action plan to “review and revise” the policy going forward using additional member input fell short of the remedy that those who would eventually file the suit were looking for, according to the suit.
Lipman’s firm is serving each defendant individually. As of press time, that process was underway. Deadlines for individual answers to the allegations in the complaint vary. No court date has been scheduled.