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Beta Theta Pi Chapter’s Federal Lawsuit Against Penn State Dismissed

The former Penn State fraternity chapter at the center of pledge Timothy Piazza’s 2017 death recently saw its federal lawsuit against the university dismissed.

Alpha Upsilon Chapter of Beta Theta Pi — the alumni-run house corporation for the chapter — initially filed the claims against Penn State and several administrators in June 2019, alleging the university’s actions to ban the chapter were an attempt to deflect blame for Penn State’s own negligence and to take control of the fraternity house.

The chapter originally claimed Penn State violated its federal rights to due process and engaged in conspiracy and fraud. The lawsuit sought unspecified damages.

But after multiple counts were dismissed by U.S. District Judge Matthew Brann, the chapter filed two amended complaints that whittled the complaint down to one claim of breach of the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing.

Brann wrote in a May 29 order dismissing the case in its entirety that the remaining claim is a state law and there are no extraordinary circumstances to warrant federal jurisdiction.

“This case has been pending for less than a year,” Brann wrote, noting the complaint was on its third iteration. “It has not even reached discovery, let alone summary judgment or trial. The Court has dismissed Plaintiff’s federal claims. And the Court declines to exercise supplemental jurisdiction over Plaintiff’s sole remaining state law claim.”

In addition to the university, President Eric Barron, Vice President for Student Affairs Damon Sims, and Senior Director of the Office of Student Conduct Danny Shaha had been named as defendants.

Piazza, a 19-year-old sophomore, died of brain injuries, head trauma, and internal bleeding from a shattered spleen after falling down the basement stairs at Beta Theta Pi during an alcohol-fueled “bid acceptance night” on Feb. 2, 2017. His death led to charges, including hazing against more than two dozen former fraternity brothers — some of whom saw charges dismissed and most of whom pleaded guilty to misdemeanor counts.

The lawsuit claimed Piazza tripped over someone not associated with the fraternity when he fell down the steps. It also alleged internal bleeding from a previous injury and medicine Piazza was taking resulted in later falls throughout the night. Both theories have been put forth by several defense attorneys in related criminal cases, but were disputed by prosecutors who say the volume of alcohol Piazza was forced to drink caused him to lose balance and fall.

Penn State permanently banned Beta Theta Pi six weeks after Piazza’s death. The chapter claimed it was done without due process and for administrators “to cover up their prior negligence in failing to adequately address the Penn State drinking culture.”

The suit also claimed the ban was attempt to trigger a deed provision that gives the university the option to purchase the house if it is no longer in use as a fraternity.

Penn State filed a lawsuit in 2018 in Centre County Court seeking a court-ordered sale of the house, citing the 1928 deed for the property at 220 N. Burrowes St., which is surrounded by the University Park campus. The alumni corporation rejected an offer from the university in August 2018 and the two sides failed to reach an agreement that fall.

The university is asking the court to appoint an arbitrator to determine a sale price for transferring the property back to Penn State.

That case is still pending. 

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About the Author

Geoff Rushton (StateCollege.com)

Geoff Rushton is managing editor for StateCollege.com. Contact him at [email protected] or find him on Twitter at @geoffrushton.

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