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Newsletter > September 2002 > "WHEN IS A FRATERNITY A NUISANCE?"
WHEN IS A FRATERNITY A NUISANCE?
James C. Harvey
Mr. Harvey is an attorney in Orange County, California. He is a member of Phi Delta Theta, the NIC Law Committee, and the NIC Legal Advocacy Fund Committee.
“The regimes of boarding houses, fraternity houses, and the like present urban problems. More people occupy a given space; more cars rather continuously pass by; more cars are parked; noise travels with crowds.” 1
Fraternity houses located in residential neighborhoods have long been lightning rods for controversy. In the past two decades, several communities have enacted restrictive zoning ordinances in response to fraternities irritating their neighbors. One community, however, has taken more drastic action: The city of Long Beach, California recently obtained an injunction against the activities of the Sigma Pi fraternity chapter located at California State University at Long Beach, alleging that the fraternity constitutes a “public nuisance.” The city’s legal action follows dozens of police visits to Sigma Pi’s house to deal with the fraternity’s frequent parties. California State University at Long Beach (CSULB), a public university with over 30,000 students, hosts 35 fraternities and sororities with a collective membership of over 1,500. There is no on-campus Greek housing and no “row” instead, fraternity and sorority houses are scattered all over Long Beach. CSULB ‘s Sigma Pi chapter has about 60 members, 14 of whom occupy the chapter’s house. That house is located in a residential neighborhood, on a busy street, and directly across from an elementary school.
In December 2001, the city of Long Beach filed a complaint in Los Angeles County Superior Court against Sigma Pi, its alumni house corporation, and its chapter adviser.2 The Complaint sought to have Sigma Pi declared a public nuisance under California civil and criminal laws. The city alleged that its police department had received 168 complaints about Sigma Pi in the past four years, and had visited the fraternity’s house dozens of times to break up loud parties, making 19 arrests. The city requested a permanent injunction against the fraternity, and reimbursement for all costs of its investigation, including attorney’s fees.
The city then filed a motion for a preliminary injunction against the fraternity. Offered in support of that motion were declarations from four Long Beach police officers, one from a neighbor of Sigma Pi, and one from the principal of the adjacent elementary school. Those declarations detailed the neighborhood impact of numerous parties held at the Sigma Pi house over the past two years, including noise, trash, and traffic. The declarations contained observations of underage drinking, illegal sales of alcohol, illegal drug use, trespassing, lewd behavior, and partygoers urinating and vomiting in public. An intoxicated Sigma Pi member once shot out a neighbor’s window with a pellet gun. Fraternity members were alleged to have “mooned” police officers videotaping one party. The school principal reported that she and her staff often had to collect used condoms and dozens of empty cups and bottles from school property the morning after Sigma Pi parties. The city presented evidence that during September 2001 alone, police were called to the Sigma Pi house on seven (7) separate nights, and that breaking up one of Sigma Pi’s parties required over a dozen officers and a helicopter.
Sigma Pi’ s alumni house corporation3 and chapter adviser (but not the chapter itself) filed objections to the city’s request, but after a hearing on April 9, 2002, the court granted the injunction under virtually the precise terms sought by the city. The court’s detailed order directs Sigma Pi not to violate the city’s noise ordinances, obstruct traffic, serve alcohol, allow littering, permit the use of illegal drugs, allow its members or guests to trespass on neighboring property or the school, or otherwise disturb the peace of the neighborhood.
In comments made to the Los Angeles Times and other newspapers, members of Sigma Pi claimed they were being unfairly singled out for punishment, and that the city was exaggerating the extent of the neighborhood problem. They also claimed that the city was ignoring the fraternity’s positive contributions to the community. The Long Beach City Attorney claimed that a lawsuit became the city’s only alternative after CSULB refused to take action against Sigma Pi. CSULB officials responded that they had attempted to rein in the fraternity through the local IFC, but had not imposed any sanctions on the group because none of its neighbors had ever filed a formal complaint with the university.
[A recent study conducted by the Harvard School of Public Health and published in the journal “Social Science and Medicine,” found that “neighbors living near college campuses were more likely to report a lowered quality of neighborhood life through such secondhand effects of heavy alcohol use as noise and disturbances, vandalism, drunkenness, vomiting and urination.” The study suggests that “alcohol outlets are more often located in areas near colleges” and “that dealing with the high density of alcohol outlets and the marketing practices this engenders in neighborhoods immediately surrounding campuses” may be an important strategy. The study, supported by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, looked at colleges generally and did not focus on fraternities. The complete study is available at http:// www.hsph.harvard.edu/cas/documents/secondhand/.]
A fraternity being subjected to the type of injunction used against criminal street gangs, or to board up crack houses, may be a dubious first. It also places Sigma Pi and its members in serious jeopardy. Violation of the court’s injunction would constitute contempt, which could subject the fraternity or its members to fines or jail time. The case also carries the risk of destroying the chapter and its house corporation financially; if the court determines at trial that the fraternity is a public nuisance, it can order the payment of the city’s costs and attorney’s fees, which if not paid become a lien against the chapter house. The city could then force the sale of the property.
Given the lurid facts of the Sigma Pi case, one might be tempted to dismiss the matter as an aberration. However, other municipal authorities are no doubt monitoring the progress of the case with interest. If Long Beach is successful, there may be more such “nuisance” actions. The case should be taken as a warning of what can occur when fraternities fail to be good neighbors.
1 Village of Belle Terre v. Boraas, 416 U.S. 1, 9 (1974)
2 City of Long Beach v. Beta Omicron Chapter of Sigma Pi, Los Angeles county Superior Court (South District), Case No. NC031319
3 In a further embarrassment for the fraternity, the city revealed that the house corporation is not in good standing with California authorities, and therefore cannot appear or oppose the City’s lawsuit unless reinstated.