Court rules against Penn State in two fraternity hazing lawsuits

Two hazing-related lawsuits against Penn State are moving forward after a judge on Friday ruled on claims the university did not act appropriately in response to allegations of hazing at two fraternities.

In one case, a judge denied Penn State’s attempts to dismiss claims of negligence and liability in the 2014 suicide of Marquise Braham, an 18-year-old member of the Phi Sigma Kappa fraternity.

Braham’s death, his parents allege, could have been prevented by Penn State officials if they had notified his family about his emotional distress. The Brahams allege that a resident assistant employed by the university knew about and reported their son’s emotional state to Penn State officials a week before he jumped to his death, but the family was not notified.

Penn State later found evidence of hazing at the fraternity and shut it down.

In another case, the same judge ruled that former student James Vivenzio, who had been a member of the Kappa Delta Rho fraternity, can sue Penn State and its student-run Interfraternity Council for fraud.

Vivenzio claims Penn State misleads students about Greek life on its website, listing no incidents of misconduct, and instead saying “there are many myths” about Greek communities, but “the reality is that men and women in fraternities and sororities are committed to their academics, volunteer their time in the community, develop and strengthen their leadership skills…”

Penn State responded to the rulings, saying it “has focused for more than a decade on the issues of excessive alcohol consumption and hazing, but like many other universities and colleges across the country these remain a serious challenge,” and that “Penn State has and will continue to educate its students about these issues and will hold them accountable whenever it learns of such wrongdoing. In every instance when Penn State is alerted to any allegations of hazing the university takes immediate action to investigate and impose sanctions.”

“Obviously this is a really significant development, not only in this case, but in the whole unfolding story of the university’s involvement in hazing and excessive alcohol abuse,” said Aaron Freiwald, the attorney for Vivenzio.

The rulings come just over three weeks after one of the largest criminal indictments against a fraternity was handed down by a grand jury, in the death of Penn State student Timothy Piazza.

Piazza, a 19-year-old sophomore, died after a night of binge drinking that was part of his fraternity initiation at Beta Theta Pi.

A grand jury report issued after his death called out Penn State’s Interfraternity Council for a “permissive atmosphere” of excess alcohol and hazing.

Greek life web page is focus of one case

Vivenzio’s fraud case is based on Penn State’s web page for Greek life, which offers information for parents and students interested in joining a fraternity or sorority. It says there is a zero tolerance policy on hazing.

Dauphin County, Pennsylvania, Judge Andrew H. Dowling Jr. ruled Friday that it is fair to infer that the Interfraternity Council “knew about the hazing and the underage drinking,” and cited the fact that Vivenzio, who left Penn State in 2014, had reported hazing to the university’s hot line, “but nothing was done about the hazing at KDR.”

“That constitutes that IFC knew that hazing took place, and thus knew that any statement that hazing did not occur was false,” the judge wrote in his order. “As such, we believe that plaintiff has sufficiently pled the elements of fraud with respect to Penn State and IFC.”

Freiwald said, “The fraud claim goes to the heart of what is so upsetting about all three of these cases, because the university is not only creating the environment in which this is happening, but covering it up at the same time.”

Vivenzio previously told CNN that his hazing included “drinking until you were vomiting. They were shoving alcohol down your throat all the time.” He shared with CNN pictures of bruises and text messages that he says he also shared with Penn State in an effort to stop the hazing after the fact.

Vivenzio says Penn State did not act on the reports until KDR came under national scrutiny for a headline-grabbing private KDR Facebook page that included pictures of naked women. Penn State investigated, found evidence of hazing, and shut down KDR in 2015.

Penn State told CNN that Vivenzio did not cooperate with initial attempts to investigate, something Vivenzio denies. After Friday’s ruling, Penn State said it is reviewing the order from the judge.

Penn State has repeatedly said it believes hazing is a national problem and Penn State is in a tricky position, given that the fraternities reside “off campus.”

But Vivenzio’s attorney said they will pursue records relating to what the university knew about hazing at Kappa Delta Rho and other fraternities.

“And that has a great deal of significance to both James’ case and also to what we now know was going on in a widespread basis, including the fraternity where Tim Piazza died,” Freiwald said.

Role of hazing in suicide key to 2nd case

The same judge is also hearing the Brahams’ case, and not only ruled that negligence and liability claims can move forward, but also left open the possibility that a fraud accusation against Penn State similar to Vivenzio’s also will stand in the Brahams’ case.

“Universities that promote fraternities but refuse to tell parents and students about the risks they face will be held responsible for their misrepresentations and misconduct,” said the Braham family’s attorney, Douglas Fierberg. “The family applauds the ruling by the court, but intends now to go the full distance to hold the fraternity and university responsible for the tragic death of their son. Universities must tell the truth and if they refuse to, this lawsuit seeks to compel them to do so.”

In Braham’s case, a grand jury investigated and found there wasn’t enough evidence to link the hazing to Braham’s suicide, which Penn State points to in its defense.

But Fierberg said his lawsuit has uncovered new evidence that shows otherwise and the judge seemed to agree.

Fierberg said a confidential report, obtained through discovery in the lawsuit, “made a direct connection between hazing and psychological crisis that led to (Braham’s) death. The report shows that five administrators from Penn State knew he was in trouble psychologically a week before he died,” Fierberg said.

In his ruling the judge found that Penn State did not provide “any explanation as to why suicide is not a foreseeable result from a person who is described as being in crisis. By its very definition, a crisis could very well lead to suicide as a result of extreme mental distress. As such, we do not agree that (Braham’s) suicide was not foreseeable based upon the allegations in the complaint.”

Fierberg said the family may ask the grand jury to take a second look.

“The grand jury didn’t have all of the evidence in front of it,” Fierberg said. “… Part of this has been about getting the truth out that Penn State has hidden. We’ve finally gotten it disclosed that Penn State knew about the hazing of Marquise, and knew the hazing placed him in psychological peril and then ignored it.”

Penn State did not respond to CNN’s request for a response to Fierberg’s comments.