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Newsletter > September 1998 > "UPDATE ON PI LAMBDA PHI PENNSYLVANIA CASE"
UPDATE ON PI LAMBDA PHI PENNSYLVANIA CASE
Timothy M. Burke, Manley & Burke
As reported in the November 1997 issue of Fraternal Law, i Lambda Phi Fraternity sought an injunction to prevent the imposition of university sanctions against the fraternity growing out of a drug raid at the fraternity house in the spring of 1996 after the dose of classes resulted in the arrest of several individuals, both fraternity members and boarders. Though the university investigation concluded that the fraternity was unaware of the illegal acts, the university imposed severe disciplinary restrictions on the chapter, including loss of recognition, which prohibited the chapter from recruiting new members, and caused the City of Pittsburgh zoning authorities to claim that because the house was no longer recognized by the University, it was no longer a fraternity house and was in violation of the zoning code and should be closed.
Early on in this dual-tracked legal battle, the fraternity had been denied an injunction in United States District Court and appealed that denial to the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit.
In January of 1998, in a short five-page opinion, the Court of Appeals 1 refused to overturn the District Court’s denial of the preliminary injunction. The court relied on the District Court’s decision that the fraternity did not suffer irreparable harm which is generally necessary to establish entitlement to a preliminary injunction. The court compared the harm that could be caused to the fraternity if the injunction was denied — The university would have “prevented [fraternity] members from formally associating with members of other fraternity organizations, wearing pledge pins and otherwise demonstrating their membership in the fraternity” — with the potential harm to the university if the injunction was granted — The university would be “forced to recognize a fraternity whose members have conducted illegal activities on the premises.” Balancing those interests, the Court of Appeals came down on the side of the university just as the trial court had.
The denial of the fraternity’s preliminary injunction request is not the end of the matter. Rather, the fraternity is continuing to press its case for permanent injunctive relief. From the fraternity’s perspective, it is encouraging that the appellate court did not suggest that the fraternity could not succeed in its claim on the merits.
Most recently, in another good sign for the fraternity, the District Court denied the university’s motion to dismiss Pi Lambda Phi’s lawsuit.
Assuming further legal motions, such as a motion for summary judgment, fail to resolve this controversy on questions of law, a trial will be held. The trial court will hear testimony, determine the facts, apply the law to those facts and make a decision. Such a decision is then subject to appeal — thus, a final decision in the federal case could be years away.
The Fraternity got better news in the zoning case pending in state court. There, the City of Pittsburgh had argued that while the Fraternity House had been a legal nonconforming use, pre-existing as it did the current multi-family zoning on the property, it lost that legal status when the University withdrew recognition from the Fraternity.
[The court relied on the District Court’s decision that the fraternity did not suffer irreparable harm which is generally necessary to establish entitlement to a preliminary injunction.]
The Pennsylvania trial court sided with the City and its ruling would have permanently closed the fraternity house. Pi Lambda Phi appealed that decision and on August 6, 1998, the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania2 reversed the trial court, finding that under·the City of Pittsburgh Zoning Code, university recognition of a fraternity was not required in order for a fraternity house to exist in conformance with the Zoning Code. The Court discussed at some length what constituted a fraternity house. The Zoning Code of the City of Pittsburgh simply did not define that use, other than to discuss fraternity houses in the context of being for students and/or faculty or, in one case, “solely for undergraduates or graduates of an educational institution.” The Code also described fraternity houses as generally being located off of the campus of the educational institution. Nowhere, however, did the Code state that university recognition was required. Since it is generally the law throughout the United States that zoning provisions, being in derogation of the common law, are strictly construed against the zoning authority and in favor of the property owner, the Commonwealth Court, without any apparent difficulty, said the City of Pittsburgh was not in a position to simply add the requirement of university recognition to its interpretation of the Code simply because zoning officials thought that was implied.
[Under the City of Pittsburgh Zoning Code, university recognition of a fraternity was not required in order for a fraternity house to exist in conformance with the Zoning Code.]
The Commonwealth Court’s decision on the zoning issue is a major victory for the Fraternity and certainly goes a long way towards protecting the Fraternity’s investment in its house. The results could have been much worse. Both federal law and some state statutes allow for law enforcement officials to seize and take ownership of property where drugs have been sold. (See Fraternal Law, Sept. 1991, Volume 37, describing the federal government’s seizure of three fraternity houses at the University of Virginia in just such a situation.)
Though the facts in this case do not support a conclusion that the drug sales in the house were sanctioned by the Fraternity, what Pi Lambda Phi has gone through in Pittsburgh for the last 15 months ought to remind chapters around the country of the importance of insuring that illegal drugs do not find their way into chapter houses and, particularly, that sales of illegal drugs do not take place. Anything less than serious vigilance and rigid enforcement can lead to very unhappy consequences.