“Court”-ing Colgate

Rumors flew this week regarding a lawsuit initiated by the Delta Kappa Epsilon (DKE) fraternity, which names Colgate University, as well as President Rebecca Chopp and Chair of Colgate’s Board of Trustees John Golden, as defendants in a lawsuit over their property acquisition under “The New Vision for Residential Education” program enacted in 2003. Colgate first learned about the lawsuit on Friday, February 28, when it received an electronic press release relating the details of the legal action, prepared by Executive Director of Students & Alumni for Colgate (SA4C) Christine Burtt. “We were surprised by the lawsuit because the University had been in conversation that Friday [February 25] afternoon,” Vice President for Communications and Public Relations James Leach said, “and it looked as though DKE might be moving forward with the same kind of plans that are being considered by other fraternities.” Unfortunately, now it appears that an agreement will not be met without legal action. DKE and their attorneys have filed the appropriate documents with the United States District Court for the Northern District of New York. These documents include the Complaint and the Motion for Pro Hoc Vice, which will grant Ohio-based attorney, 1978 Colgate graduate and DKE Alumni, Thomas J. Wiencek permission to temporarily practice law in the state of New York. According to Leach, Colgate University was served with the court papers on Tuesday, March 1. According to her office, Chopp is away on a Colgate-related business trip until Sunday, which is why an attempt to serve her on Tuesday, March 1, failed. Golden lives in New York City and could not be reached for comment by the time this article went to print, either by phone or e-mail. So, what action did Colgate take after learning the surprising news? “The first thing we did was to check and see if the suit had been filed,” Leach said. Once they received that confirmation, then the University turned to their attorneys, Bond, Schoeneck & King in Syracuse and Hughes, Hubbard, & Reed in New York City. Posted on Thursday, March 3, a website press release prepared by the Colgate Office of Communications states that Leach believes that the DKE complaint is without merit. “As the University put the New Vision of Residential Education together, it tested all those aspects to be sure it was acting within the law,” he said. “The same attorneys who represent us now were asked to review the different elements of the plan. Colgate feels confident in its position.” As does its attorney. “We don’t see any claims that give rise to interference in Colgate implementing its plan,” Edward Conan of Bond, Schoeneck & King said. But DKE does. Reading from the 40-plus page complaint, Thomas P. Halley, Chairman of the Mu of DKE Foundation and Colgate graduate of 1973, explained that DKE’s primary grievance is a violation of Federal New York Anti-trust laws. Wiencek notes seven other causes of action, including “The Freedom of Speech and Association Campus Act of 1997” and “The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.” “Our alumni and our undergraduate brothers feel as though the New Vision for Residential Life undermines Colgate’s promises to honor students’ civil and constitutional rights,” President of Colgate’s DKE chapter senior Sam Higgins said. A key component of “A New Vision for Residential Education” is that all students participate by living in University-owned housing. “As part of the plan to transform residential life, Colgate will seek to acquire all of the Greek-letter houses,” the “New Vision” pamphlet states. “Fraternities and sororities can continue to occupy the houses, but the college will manage the properties and provide oversight consistent with that in other student residences.” Along with the other fraternities and sororities, DKE began negotiations with Colgate officials over a year ago in response to this New Vision. According to the Colgate website, “Alumni leaders of eight of Colgate’s fraternities and sororities have agreed to terms that would provide for the sale or gift of their houses to the university, subject to confirmation by the members of the individual alumni corporations that own the properties.” DKE, however, wants to put up a fight. “If we started out at a one and Colgate started out at a 10, we are at 9.9 and they are still at 10,” Higgins said. “We’ve done every single thing we possibly can,” Halley said in reference to the extent of their compromises over the past year. “Colgate is saying, ‘our way or no way’. It’s a land grab, short and simple, and it’s just not the way things should be.” A few years ago, a similar situation occurred at Hamilton College, when four fraternities sued the school over the same violation of anti-trust laws under a similar Residential Life program. Hamilton College’s Vice President of Administration and Finance Karen Leach said that the lawsuit was dropped as part of the purchase agreements. Hamilton College now owns all Greek housing. This verdict led Colgate to claim on its website that “Five years ago, this same court dismissed a remarkably similar complaint that a DKE chapter had filed against Hamilton College, arising from changes in Hamilton’s residential education program.” The plaintiffs, however, believe that Colgate has missed an important part of the Hamilton lawsuit. Halley said that while Colgate’s press release is technically correct, it fails to mention the subsequent appeals’ process and verdict. Wiencek said that the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit reversed this case and remanded it back to the District Court in 1997. “The effect of the reversal was that the appellate court told the district court that there were genuine factual issues that could be tried in a court of law based on an anti trust legal theory,” Wiencek said. “That case provided a roadmap for future similar cases,” Burrt said. But the other side is not satisfied with this understanding. Conan pointed toward an even later ruling in 2000, which dismissed the fraternities’ complaint entirely. “This case simply mirrors the same arguments that were rejected in the other case,” Conan said. From this dispute, what emerges is a distinctly legal conundrum – each side wanting to interpret the Hamilton case and its rulings to favor their position. The situation does appear to be unclear enough that the two parties will have to resolve the conflict in front of judge and jury. Wiencek does not believe that DKE will suffer the same fate as the Hamilton College fraternities, which ran out of money before they could take any further action. “We have the resources and the resolve here,” he said. “I am confident that, unlike the Hamilton College case, this court will not dismiss our complaint based on the merits pled there.” Higgins echoes the attorney’s sentiments. “We are confident that this lawsuit will result in stopping Colgate’s forced purchase of our house and property,” he said. This confidence reflects a decision well-planned. “This decision is one that has been extremely carefully thought-out,” Higgins said. Burrt agreed. “An extensive amount of work has been done on the part of the DKE attorneys and other interested parties to ascertain the merits of the complaint,” she said. “They decided to go forward after much legal analysis, discussion, and soul-searching.” According to DKE sources, the fraternity has received a huge amount of support. “We’ve been receiving hundreds of calls, even from out of the country, and they’ve all been very supportive,” Halley said. “These people have been saying good, good for you. It’s time somebody stood up for us.” Burrt had statistical data to back up his claim. “After the news release we sent out, we received 163 positive e-mails and eight positive phone calls,” she said. They only received 17 negative e-mails. Higgins agrees with the extensive DKE-backing. “The lawsuit has the support of the undergraduate brotherhood, and with the support of the Alumni Corporation and Mu foundation,” he said. “We collectively have decided that this lawsuit is something that is in the best interest of our organization.” Despite this legal action, DKE still wishes to maintain a positive relationship with the university. “We look forward to continuing to be an integral part of the Colgate community for years to come,” Higgins said.