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.

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Portland stabbing suspect yells in court: ‘Get out if you don’t like free speech’

Jeremy Joseph Christian began yelling when he walked into the courtroom Tuesday. “Get out if you don’t like free speech,” he said, and “You call it terrorism, I call it patriotism. You hear me? Die.” Christian, 35, is accused of fatally stabbing two me…

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Portland stabbing suspect yells in court: ‘Get out if you don’t like free speech’

Jeremy Joseph Christian began yelling when he walked into the courtroom Tuesday. “Get out if you don’t like free speech,” he said, and “You call it terrorism, I call it patriotism. You hear me? Die.” Christian, 35, is accused of fatally stabbing two me…

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GOP wants poor to work for government benefits

It’s a Republican dream come true.

Now that they control both the White House and Congress, Republicans are moving quickly to put their ideological stamp on the nation’s safety net.

Their prime directive: Requiring as many poor adults as possible to earn their benefit check. Making them get jobs will put them on the path to self-sufficiency, while reducing the number of people who depend on public assistance, according to GOP orthodoxy.

“There’s a dignity to work, and there’s a necessity to work to help the country succeed,” White House budget director Mick Mulvaney said last week. “We are no longer going to measure compassion by the number of programs or the number of people on those programs. We’re going to measure compassion and success by the number of people we help get off of those programs and get back in charge of their own lives.”

Currently, work requirements don’t hit many people in the nation’s two largest safety net programs. States can’t mandate Medicaid recipients to work. The food stamp program contains an employment requirement, but it can be — and often is — waived. That will change if Republicans succeed in their overhaul plans.

In addition to actually having a job, there are a variety of ways recipients could satisfy the work requirement. These include looking for work, attending job training or vocational education classes and participating in community service programs.

The GOP’s efforts, however, have raised an outcry among Democrats and consumer advocates, who call the requirement hard-hearted and misguided. Many poor Americans who can work already do, they argue. Putting in place such mandates doesn’t take into account barriers to employment such as health, child care and transportation. It will only strip benefits from those who need them most, advocates say. Plus, they note, President Trump’s budget proposal strips funding from job training initiatives.

Here’s how the GOP is seeking to change the nation’s two main safety net programs:

Medicaid: Medicaid is the country’s largest health insurance provider, covering more than 70 million low-income children, adults, elderly and disabled Americans. That includes 11 million low-income adults who gained coverage under Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion provision.

The program doesn’t require enrollees to work, though many do. Nearly 60 percent of non-disabled, working-age adults have jobs, while nearly 80 percent live in families with at least one worker, according to a Kaiser Family Foundation analysis.

Several states have asked the federal government to allow them to impose employment mandates, particularly on adults who qualified through Medicaid expansion as a result of Obamacare. The Obama administration rejected any attempts to tie Medicaid benefits to work.

The Trump administration, on the other hand, is encouraging states to apply for waivers to add work requirements, noting it will boost their economic standing and help them gain independence.

“The best way to improve the long-term health of low-income Americans is to empower them with skills and employment,” wrote Health Secretary Tom Price and Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services Administrator Seema Verma in a letter to governors in March.

Republicans in Congress are also on board. The House GOP bill to repeal and replace Obamacare would allow states to impose work requirements on non-disabled, non-elderly, non-pregnant adults. The legislation is currently being debated in the Senate.

Adding work requirements to Medicaid would not severely disrupt the program since so many beneficiaries have jobs or would be exempt, said Ben Gitis, director of labor market policy at the conservative American Action Forum. But, just over one million enrollees would be subject to the mandate, which is still a substantial number, he said.

“It would encourage quite a few people to find work and find their own way out of poverty,” Gitis said.

But it could also mean folks would lose their benefits, said MaryBeth Musumeci, associate director at Kaiser’s Program on Medicaid and the Uninsured. More than one-third of those without jobs said they aren’t working because of illness or disability, while another 28 percent said they were taking care of their home or family. Others said they were in school, couldn’t find jobs or were retired.

“Just saying work is required is not enough to get to the end goal,” she said. “It requires more investment of resources and case management.”

Food stamps: More than 40 million Americans receive food stamps — nearly two-thirds of them are children, elderly or disabled. The average household on food stamps had income of less than $10,000 a year.

Unlike Medicaid, there is a work requirement on the books in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, the formal name for food stamps. About 44 percent of food stamp recipients had jobs in fiscal 2015, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which administers the program.

Adults without minor children can only receive benefits for three months out of every 36-month period unless they are working 20 hours a week. But states can waive that requirement for areas with unemployment of at least 10 percent or an insufficient number of jobs, as defined by the Department of Labor.

Trump’s budget proposal would limit the waivers to areas where unemployment is at least 10 percent.

Currently, more than one-third of the country lives in areas that are waived from the work requirement, according to the left-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Under the Trump budget, only 1.3 percent of the nation would.

In discussing the budget last week, Mulvaney suggested there were recipients collecting food stamps who shouldn’t be. Those are the people the administration is looking to put back to work.

“What we’ve done is not to try and remove the safety net for folks who need it, but to try and figure out if there’s folks who don’t need it that need to be back in the workforce,” he said.

But the administration’s suggested work requirement would kick about one million very poor people off the program, said Stacy Dean, the center’s vice president for food assistance policy. Most have low skills, making it tough for them to find a job.

“Taking away food assistance is not going to make looking for work any easier,” she said.

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