- NPC RESOLUTION LENDS SUPPORT TO SUBSTANCE-FREE HOUSING MOVEMENT
- MARCHING AWAY FROM ALCOHOL
- JUST WHAT ARE FRATERNAL EDUCATIONAL AND CHARITABLE PURPOSES ANYWAY? (Part Two)
- ANTITRUST CLAIM REINSTATED AT HAMILTON COLLEGE
- LEGAL SUMMIT INITIATES DIALOGUE
- TWO CASES OF NOTE IN PENNSYLVANIA
Newsletter > November 1997 > "TWO CASES OF NOTE IN PENNSYLVANIA"
TWO CASES OF NOTE IN PENNSYLVANIA
Timothy M. Burke, Manley & Burke
The enormous difficulties that drugs in a fraternity house can cause are underscored by recent events at the University of Pittsburgh. In the Spring of 1996, after the close of classes, local police raided the Pi Lambda Phi House to serve an arrest warrant on an individual wanted for drug trafficking. Several individuals, both fraternity members and boarders, ended up being arrested on drug-related charges. The university brought disciplinary action against the fraternity. While the university-appointed hearing panel found no direct relationship between the drug raid and the chapter itself, sanctions were recommended. Though the panel recognized that the fraternity was unaware of the illegal acts, it held that discipline was appropriate based on the actions of individual members and their guests.
The fraternity appealed those sanctions through the university process, which only resulted in the severity of the sanctions being increased. The university ordered that the chapter be considered unrecognized, but provided the opportunity to apply for a probationary status if compliance with other conditions, including adopting substance-free housing, reorganizing the chapter, and hiring a live-in house director were met.
Along with university discipline, the chapter simultaneously faced a challenge from local zoning authorities who, acting on the theory that because the chapter was no longer recognized by the university it was not a fraternity, caused the chapter’s zoning permit to be revoked.
[Though the panel recognized that the fraternity was unaware of the illegal acts, it held that discipline was appropriate based on the actions of individual members and their guests.]
Two lawsuits have grown out of these facts. The first suit challenges the decision by the City of Pittsburgh’s Zoning Board of Appeals which ruled that if the fraternity remained unrecognized by the university for more than one year, it will have lost its status as a legal nonconforming use. (A nonconforming use is one that while not in conformance with the current zoning regulation, existed prior to the adoption of those zoning regulations and therefore remains legal. This is frequently referred to as “grandfathering.”) This issue is on appeal to the Pennsylvania trial court. The case has been fully presented to the court on the legal memoranda of the parties and the court is expected to make its decision sometime within the next several months.
[The university based its sanctions against the chapter on a university regulation which makes the chapter responsible for the improper conduct of a single individual – a collective responsibility standard.]
For its part, the university based its sanctions against the chapter, which included a prohibition against recruiting new members, on a university regulation which makes the chapter responsible for the improper conduct of a single individual – a collective responsibility standard.
The university’s refusal this spring to lift the nonrecognition status even though the chapter had complied with the university’s conditions, led to a lawsuit in United States District Court. The suit argued that, among other things, the conduct of the university violated the freedom of association and equal protection provisions of the United States Constitution. It also claimed that the university had violated the due process rights of the fraternity and its members.
In an effort to recruit new members immediately, the fraternity sought an injunction based on their freedom of association and equal protection rights. The due process claims of the fraternity were not involved in the injunction proceeding and remain pending with the court.
In April following the conclusion of a two-day hearing, United States District Court Judge Donald Ziegler refused to issue the injunction.1 The court indicated that it did not believe a fraternity could succeed on the merits in the litigation. In Healy v, James (1972) 408 U.S. 169, which is frequently cited to compel universities to recognize student groups, Judge Ziegler found legal support for the university’s authority to take the action against Pi Lambda Phi based on the conduct of its members.
“We find that, based on the serious drug violations committed by members of Pi Lambda Phi, the University of Pittsburgh was entitled to sanction the fraternity by withdrawing recognition of its official status. It is recognized by the United States Supreme Court in Healy, that a university has broad authority to proscribe and control the conduct of its students.” 2
To the argument that the university was holding fraternities to a standard different than that of other student groups, the court replied:
“The university has many potential reasons to hold fraternities and sororities, which have a far more significant involvement in students’ lives than do other student organizations to a different set of rules for the conduct of their members. Fraternity and sorority members reside in fraternity and sorority houses. They take meals in the residence and engage in a vast array of social activities sponsored by fraternities and sororities and have for decades been involved in these functions, including hazing traditions, which provide a rational basis for the university to hold fraternities and sororities to different standards than the university may apply to other student organizations such as student government or other such clubs.”
The court’s denial of the fraternity’s request for injunctive relief is now on appeal to the Third Circuit United States Court of Appeals. Argument has yet to be scheduled.
The Pi Lambda Phi case situation presents several thorny legal issues. The ultimate outcome of both the zoning case and the federal court case against the university will bear watching.
1 Pi Lambda Phi Fraternity, Inc. v. University of Pittsburgh, United States District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania, Civil Action No. 97-903.
2 The quotes from the court are taken from a transcript of the court’s oral statement of the reasons for declining the request for injunctive relief. Because the court did not formally publish its opinion, the precedential value of the decision is reduced.