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Newsletter > January 1999 > "PI LAMBDA PHI CASE AWAITS WORD FROM PENNSYLVANIA SUPREME COURT"
PI LAMBDA PHI CASE AWAITS WORD FROM PENNSYLVANIA SUPREME COURT
Timothy M. Burke, Manley & Burke
As reported in the November 1997 and September 1998 issues of Fraternal Law, the Pi Lambda Phi Fraternity has been engaged in litigation to protect its chapter and fraternity house at the University of Pittsburgh. In April 1996, a drug raid resulted in the arrests of some chapter members and nonmember residents living in the house for various counts, including illegal possession and intent to sell and deliver drugs. Following those charges, the University withdrew recognition of the chapter with the understanding that the chapter could reapply for recognition.
The City of Pittsburgh carried the matter to another level, ruling that since the chapter was no longer recognized as a fraternity by the University, it did not constitute a fraternity under the City’s Zoning Code and therefore, the house lost its status as a legal use. The Fraternity vigorously resisted the loss of its legal zoning status, but a Pennsylvania Trial Court ruled in favor of the City’s interpretation. The Fraternity appealed that decision to the Pennsylvania Court of Appeals and as reported in the September 1998 issue of Fraternal Law, the Appeals Court found that university recognition of a fraternity was not required in order for a fraternity house to conform to the City’s zoning code. While the code had referred to fraternity houses as being for students, there was no provision in the code that required the chapter be recognized by the university.
The City of Pittsburgh has attempted to appeal that decision to the Supreme Court of the State of Pennsylvania. In contrast to a review by the Appellate Court in the State of Pennsylvania, which is mandatory that the Court of Appeals must consider an appeal if one is filed with it, the Supreme Court of the State of Pennsylvania, like the Supreme Court of the United States and many other state supreme courts, is not required to hear all appeals that are filed with it The Supreme Court has discretion within certain limits to determine what cases it will hear.
In the Pi Lambda Phi case, the City of Pittsburgh asked the Supreme Court to review one question: “ls recognition by the University as a student organization a prerequisite to qualification as a fraternity under the Pittsburgh Zoning Code?” The Fraternity, in its brief in opposition to the Supreme Court’s consideration of the appeal, pointed out that the appellate court decision held that the zoning code does not define “fraternity” and neither the dictionary definition nor the zoning code requires a fraternity to be recognized by a university.
As of this writing, the Supreme Court of the State of Pennsylvania has not determined whether or not to hear the case. There is, however, solid historical support for the Fraternity’s position which goes well beyond any narrow reading of the Pittsburgh Zoning Code. In their infancy, most fraternities were initiated and existed without recognition from and frequently with the strong opposition of the universities at which chapters were located. Even today it is not unusual to find the chapters of fraternities and sororities existing strong and healthy without recognition by a college or university. Perhaps the strongest example of that was at the University of Texas where more than a dozen NPC sorority chapters existed for years replete with houses and large memberships, and no recognition from the University whose students were members of the chapters.