Comedian Fights to Retain Presidency of Sorority

By Keith L. Alexander
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 16, 2008

Comedian and actress Sheryl Underwood showed up with an entourage yesterday at D.C. Superior Court -- but it was hardly a laughing matter.

The comedian, a regular on the nationally syndicated Tom Joyner radio show, came to court to make her claim to the presidency of Zeta Phi Beta, a sorority with about 100,000 members. A challenger has filed a lawsuit trying to strip Underwood of the title.

Underwood, of West Hollywood, was elected president July 2 at the sorority's Las Vegas convention. But Kim Sawyer, a certified project manager from Bowie, and her supporters argued that the comedian did not receive enough votes to prevail. During a subsequent runoff election, Sawyer obtained the majority of the votes, and she wants those results recognized.

Sawyer filed suit against the sorority and Underwood. The case was filed in the District because the sorority was founded on the campus of Howard University in 1920 and is incorporated in the city.

Underwood's attorney, Elmer Douglass Ellis, argued that the runoff election was not sanctioned by the sorority. "It was a bogus election," Ellis said.

The Zetas' members include the late author Zora Neale Hurston, actress Jayne Kennedy and singer Dionne Warwick. Kennedy and Warwick were not in court, but nearly 100 other women, dressed in the sorority's royal blue, crowded the room.

D.C. Superior Court Judge Gerald I. Fisher ordered a mediation hearing for Sept. 17. If not settled then, the case will go to trial Nov. 13.

Underwood's presence caused a stir outside the courthouse, with fans stopping her for autographs or pictures. Many were familiar with her work on "Def Comedy Jam" and as host of "Comic View" on BET. Before getting into her limousine, a smiling Underwood said she was "proud my sorors have faith in me."

After the hearing, Sawyer declined to comment. Her attorney, Stephen J. Williams, said he and his client "plan to use any remedy available" in the fight for the position.

Zeta attorney R. Jonathan Charleston said he was confident the dispute will be resolved soon.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company