While a judge has allowed a lawsuit against the Miss America Organization’s new leadership to continue, the organization is not required to stop its current operations.
Atlantic County Superior Court Judge Michael Blee on Friday ruled the lawsuit filed by a former MAO board member and four state organizations can proceed in court. Both sides celebrated the ruling.
The lawsuit claims that MAO Chairwoman Gretchen Carlson and CEO Regina Hopper orchestrated an “illegal and bad-faith takeover” of the MAO, beginning in January 2018. It stems from an ongoing battle between the MAO and the state-level pageant leadership.
Since June, volunteers with the organization have said there has been a lack of transparency over the MAO’s decision making, including the elimination of the swimsuit competition and revoking licenses from seven states, including the four named in the suit.
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Former MAO trustee Jennifer Vaden Barth and West Virginia director Leah Summers sat with their attorney Paul Perkins while the remaining plaintiffs, Mansfield Bias, of Georgia, and Jane Alderson, of Tennessee, sat behind. The plaintiff from Pennsylvania could not make it to the hearing.
Carlson and Hopper also did not appear in court.
Blee read his ruling to an audience that included former Miss America Suzette Charles and representatives from state organizations such as the Georgia Miss America Scholarship Fund.
While the judge allowed the suit to continue, he denied a preliminary injunction aimed at stopping Carlson and Hopper from further damaging the state organizations’ operations, according to court documents.
Blee denied the injunction because the plaintiffs failed to prove the states experienced “irreparable harm” from the organization’s decision to terminate state pageants’ licenses in September.
The Miss America Organization said in a statement it was pleased with Blee’s ruling Friday.
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“MAO and those who support its mission are gratified that the court has recognized that it has the legal green light to move forward to build a program that encourages inclusivity and diversity while focusing on scholarship and service,” it stated.
Vaden Barth said she was glad the judge listened to their concerns and saw it as a step in a hearing that is going to take more time and litigation.
“We look forward to continuing the conversation because we believe we are fighting for the right thing and for the thousands of volunteers and participants,” she said.
“This is a case where we’re not fighting over money, we’re not fighting over things that might often be before this court,” Perkins said. “But we’re fighting for an institution, and we’re fighting for all of the volunteers and others who are here represented by my clients.”
While Blee recognized and commended the efforts of the volunteers who have worked under these organizations for years, he said the MAO had the right to make decisions.
Blee said the state organizations do not own or have a stake in the brands because the brand is owned and trademarked by the MAO.
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He said the agreements between the individual states and the MAO clearly stated the MAO had the right to revoke licences after one or two years.
New Jersey, New York and Florida pageant organizations have had their licenses reinstated and new directors appointed after appeals.
Tennessee, Georgia and Pennsylvania have new licenses awarded to new separate pageant entities, and Blee said West Virginia is looking to start a new one as well.
Blee said an injunction would halt these new pageant endeavors altogether.
“The lack of competitions in these states could have an impact of depriving young women (of) the opportunity to participate ultimately in the Miss America program and to obtain the career advancement opportunities that come with participating in such a worthwhile endeavor,” he said.
MAO attorney Timothy Davis said the opposition is a “vocal minority” unable to accept change.
“We all commit to the newer mission of Miss America, but we want it with integrity and good governance,” Vaden Barth said. “Change isn’t that hard when you just rely on integrity and good governance.”
The next hearing will be held Feb. 12, during which Blee said parties could seek mediation or, if not, submit discovery and set trial dates.