Lawsuit outlines fraternity grievances

Devin Burke and Andy Dolan

The four fraternities that have filed suit against Lawrence University are seeking a permanent court injunction entitling the fraternity members to exclusive occupancy of their respective houses.The Lawrentian has obtained a copy of the lawsuit filed by Sigma Phi Epsilon against Lawrence University, clarifying the standpoint the four fraternities are taking against the University. Both the Summons and the Complaint and Jury Demand are dated Sept. 20, 2002.

The lawsuits have until recently been in the hands of the four judges who are presiding over the respective cases. According to a letter from Judge Joseph Troy addressed to three other Outagamie County judges, the filing of four separate lawsuits was unnecessary, as they all present similar cases.

The letter says of the lawsuits, “They all present essentially the same legal issues, and I am not certain why the plaintiff chose to separate the cases into four actions, rather than one. I am alerting you to these claims, because, ultimately, judicial economy would certainly demand that they be consolidated.”

The letter goes on to say, “I think we should anticipate either having the parties move for consolidation, or that we should do so on our own.”

The introduction of the demand outlines the allegations the plaintiff (in this case, the Sigma Phi Epsilon Alumni Foundation):

“The plaintiff seeks declaratory and injunctive relief relating to the performance of obligations and duties assumed by Lawrence College and its legal successors in an agreement made with the Sig Ep Alumni Association dated January 24, 1944.

“That agreement established a fiduciary relationship obligating Lawrence University to: 1) make annual scholarship awards to active members of the local chapter of Sigma Phi Epsilon Fraternity, 2) make annual $180.00 payments to the Sigma Phi Epsilon Alumni Association, and 3) maintain a policy by which members of the Local Chapter would be assigned rooms in the dormitory/fraternity house located at 726 East John Street, Appleton, Wisconsin. Those obligations were reaffirmed by Lawrence University in agreements made in 1985. Lawrence University has recently adopted a policy that deprives members of the Local Chapter of the right to assignment to rooms in 726 East John Street and their use of that building as a fraternity house.”

The Vice President for Business Affairs at Lawrence, Michael Stewart, signed the 1985 agreement, entitled “Fraternity Scholarship Agreement.”

The agreements referenced in the lawsuit have come under scrutiny by both sides. While some have claimed that the agreements are not contractual in nature, John Hein, the attorney representing the four fraternities, stated, “the difference in the law [between contracts and agreements] is whether it is written or oral.” Hein characterized the University’s stance as contesting whether the agreements are enforceable.

Some key passages to note in the lawsuit include:

• “Sigma Phi Epsilon was one of five fraternities with local chapters at Lawrence College that in 1941 negotiated agreements in good faith, cooperation and mutual understanding by which those fraternities were afforded assurances that members of their local chapters would be assigned rooms in the dormitory/fraternity houses dedicated to each local chapter.”

• “In October 2001 Lawrence University implemented a policy that deprives members of the Local Chapter of the right to assignment to rooms in 726 East John Street and to use of that building as a fraternity house.”

• “During the past school year, the Local Chapter was required to engage in a formal group housing application process in order that its members be assigned to rooms in 726 East John Street and use that building as a fraternity house for the 2002-2003 school year. The Local Chapter has participated in that process under protest and obtained a three-year assignment to 726 East John Street.”

• “There exists a justifiable controversy among the parties regarding the validity and enforceability of the Agreement, including its provisions regarding the right of undergraduate members of the Local Chapter to be assigned rooms in the fraternity house that was dedicated to their use.”

The Plaintiff seeks that the Court order the following relief:

1. Declaring that the provisions of the Agreement entitling undergraduate members of the Local Chapter to occupy 726 East John Street (or a comparable dormitory/fraternity house dedicated to the use of the Local Chapter) are reasonable and enforceable and not susceptible to unilateral repudiate by Lawrence University.

2. Enforcing the provisions of the Agreement through appropriate permanent injunction.

3. Awarding Plaintiffs the costs and disbursements of this action.

4. Awarding such other relief as the Court deems just and equitable dated this 20th day of September, 2002.

According to the Summons, the university must respond with a written answer within 45 days.

President Warch remained unavailable for comment.