December 19, 2011; Source: LaCrosse Tribune | A court case in LaCrosse, Wisconsin focuses on the Hmong phrase “feem cuam,” which one side of the dispute says can be translated as either “membership” or “responsibility.” The other side asserts that the phrase means only “membership.”

The Hmong Mutual Assistance Association was organized by the local Hmong community in 2005, not only as a community center but also to establish a location where funerals could be held. A lifetime membership for families comes at a price of $1,000, and that fee is supposed to guarantee families’ use of the center for funerals, which can draw hundreds and last up to three days. Somewhere between 230 and 240 families have paid the fee. (Non-members are required to pay a $10,000 fee to use the space for a funeral.)

When the center fell into financial problems in 2010, however, the Association went back to the original members for an additional $280 payment, and made it clear that if the additional fee were not paid the membership would be terminated.

Seventy percent of the families paid the additional money, but forty-two families filed suit, charging breach of contract and fraud. The lawyer for the plaintiffs says the Association had a responsibility to follow the law and fulfill the original contract, while the lawyer for the defendants asserts that membership is not a simple transaction like buying a car. In buying a membership, he said, the families were entering into an “ongoing relationship between the members and the organization [. . .] The free funeral service was a benefit of purchasing a membership,” he wrote. “Not the thing being purchased.”

The judge, facing a courtroom filled with three hundred Hmong community members and the parties on both sides of the dispute who said they were interested in saving the building, sent the question to mediation, urging them to work it out.

This is an interesting case in that it cuts to the heart of questions about the reciprocal responsibilities of membership. We would love to hear from readers about other, similar cases.—Ruth McCambridge