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Newsletter > November 2020 > "AKA National Sorority Dismissed from Hankins’ Lawsuit"
AKA National Sorority Dismissed from Hankins’ Lawsuit
Ilana L. Linder, Fraternal Law Partners, Ilana.email@example.com
Back in January 2019, Fraternal Lawreported that a new lawsuit had been filed by the family of Jordan Hankins, a Northwestern University basketball player and Alpha Kappa Alpha (AKA) pledge who committed suicide.
The Complaint, which was brought primarily against the national sorority, local and alumni chapters, and multiple individuals affiliated with AKA, alleged sixteen wrongful-death and survival claims against the Defendants. In essence, the Hankins family believes that the “post-initiation pledge process” in which Jordan was physically, mentally, verbally, and financially abused or exploited led Jordan to take her own life.
Since the filing of the Complaint, the Defendants all moved to dismiss the Complaint. In March 2020, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois granted the national sorority’s motion to dismiss, but denied the motions of both the local chapter and the individual sorority members named in the Complaint.
Individual Sorority Members:
The district court concluded that the claims against the individual sorority members had been sufficiently pled to survive the motion to dismiss phase. The claims asserted against the individual members are all rooted in the general theory of negligence, raising the question of whether the individual members owed a duty to refrain from hazing Jordan and, if that duty was breached, whether the hazing proximately caused Jordan’s suicide.
Relying on Bogenberger v. Pi Kappa Alpha Corp. Inc.,the court easily concluded that the individual sorority members who physically hazed Jordan did indeed owe a duty to protect Jordan from hazing. After all, as the Illinois Supreme Court explained in Bogenberger, hazing injuries are both reasonably foreseeable and likely to occur, as evinced by the enactment of state anti-hazing statutes and the fact that national fraternities/sororities themselves prohibit hazing. Moreover, although the court acknowledged that establishing that an individual’s own choice to take her life was proximately caused by specific actions of certain individuals, it nonetheless found that the Plaintiff’s Complaint contained explicit allegations that were enough to hold that suicide would have been a reasonably foreseeable outcome of Jordan’s hazing. Specifically, because the Complaint alleged that Jordan had expressly communicated to the individual members that she had a plan to commit suicide, not just that she was depressed or generally suicidal. For these reasons, the court denied the individual defendants’ motion to dismiss and the case against them will proceed.
For reasons nearly identical to those applied to the individual sorority members, the Court also denied the local (graduate) chapter’s motion to dismiss.
Here, the Bogenberger decision again controlled, as the Court noted that “it is reasonable to place the burden of guarding against hazing injury on the ‘very people who are in charge of planning and carrying out the pledge event.’”Given the personal involvement in Jordan’s initiation (and post-initiation) activities, including the hazing that allegedly led her to commit suicide, by “officers” of the local (graduate) chapter, the court concluded that this local chapter also owed a duty to Jordan to protect her from hazing.
In seeking to hold the national organization vicariously and directly liable for Jordan’s death, the Complaint asserted claims of negligent supervision, negligent entrustment, and ordinary negligence against AKA National. Here, the Court concluded that, even if the Plaintiff could establish the requisite level of control over the chapter/individual members by the national sorority—which the Court recognized as a very high bar to reach—so as to establish an agency relationship between the national organization and the local chapter(s), the Plaintiff’s claims of vicarious liability against AKA National failed. Specifically, because hazing conduct falls outside the scope of any alleged agency relationship given the National’s anti-hazing policies, the Plaintiff could not maintain an action against AKA National as being vicariously liable for the conduct of its local chapters or individual members.
The Plaintiff’s attempt to hold AKA National directly liable for Jordan’s death on account of its “failure to protect” Jordan (from third-party hazing) also failed because the Complaint did not adequately alleged the existence of a special relationship between Jordan and AKA National. Therefore, AKA National’s motion to dismiss was granted.
As of the time of this publication, the case was proceeding into the discovery stage against the remaining Defendants.
Ilana Linder, Lawsuit Filed After Tragic Death of Northwestern Student, 158 Fraternal L. 22 (Jan. 2019).
Hankins v. Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc., 447 F.Supp.3d 672 (N.D. Ill. 2020).
104 N.E.3d 1110 (Ill. 2018).
At the time the Court ruled on the various motions to dismiss, service had not yet been perfected on the local (undergraduate) chapter. Therefore, the Court only discussed the merits of the local (graduate) chapter’s motion to dismiss.
Hankins,447 F.Supp.3d at 690 (citing Bogenberger, 104 N.E.3d at 1125).