Beta Theta Pi House, 220 N. Burrowes St. Photo by Joe Whitman
A Center County judge on Tuesday ruled that a nearly century-old deed provision gives Penn State the right to acquire ownership of the Beta Theta Pi fraternity house where Timothy Piazza suffered abuse. fatal injuries at an alcohol-fueled bid acceptance party in 2017.
Judge Brian Marshall has given the university and the alumni-run host company that owns and manages the property, which is surrounded by the University Park campus, six months to negotiate a sale price. If they can’t come to an agreement after that date, a board of arbitrators will decide how much Penn State must pay to acquire it.
The Beta Theta Pi property has not housed an active fraternity chapter since its recognition was permanently revoked by the university and its charter suspended by its national organization in the weeks following the death of Piazza, a second year student. year of age 19, from brain damage and laceration. misses after falling head first down the basement stairs on February 4, 2017.
The 1928 deed ceding the property to 220 N. Burrowes St. stated that the university had the right to repurchase it if it was no longer used as a fraternity house for the Beta Theta Pi chapter. After the housing company refused to receive college offers for the property, Penn State filed a lawsuit in November 2018 asking for a court-ordered sale.
A three-day trial without a jury took place in October.
“The 1928 Act contains no real doubt as to its interpretation,” Marshall wrote as he spoke in favor of Penn State in his verdict on Tuesday.
Lawyers for the House of Elders society argued that the act did not state that an active chapter of undergraduate student members was to live in the house and that the society itself was the chapter of the fraternity. They further added that because the national organization Beta Theta Pi had not permanently revoked the charter, it could still re-establish an active chapter at Penn State.
Marshall rejected these arguments, writing that the act clearly distinguished between the active chapter and the corporation of the house. He also wrote that the house society is a nonprofit, not a fellowship, and does not have the authority to determine whether an active chapter will be reestablished.
The house company also suggested that Penn State used Piazza’s death as an opportunity to buy back the property.
Marshall wrote that there was no evidence that the university revoked recognition in order to purchase the property, but rather that it was clear that the university had done so as a direct result of the actions that led at the death of Piazza.
University officials discussed the deed and the future of the property in the weeks and months following Piazza’s death, and contemporary records presented at the trial showed that the president of Penn State, Eric Barron, said the property would not be used as student accommodation in the future. Barron also had several conversations with Piazza’s father Jim, who suggested potential uses for the property, including demolishing the house or replacing it with an engineering building named in honor of his son.
Barron testified at trial, however, that acquiring the house was not a motivation behind the fraternity ban.
“What happened was simply wrong. It was awful, ”Barron said, according to court transcripts. “It was a case where I believe a young man’s life could have been saved if people cared about him. And as an institution all death is horrible, but we just couldn’t ignore the evidence that was there and we had to get a really strong message that we just can’t make it happen. “
Vice President of Student Affairs Damon Sims said that prior to February 2017 Beta Theta Pi had been viewed and presented itself as a “chapter of excellence”. A subsequent investigation, however, found that the chapter had committed “numerous” alcohol-related hazing violations dating back to 2014.
“What we discovered from this investigation was that there was a long-standing systematic effort to do something other than what the Chapter should have done and what it claimed to have done,” Sims said. . “We had every reason to doubt that this group of people would change course. And in fact, we had a tremendous amount of evidence to suggest that the situation was about as bad as we had seen and that we needed to take action to match the circumstance. “
The house society voluntarily told its student members to vacate the property in the spring of 2017. Since then it has been used on and off by former dues-paying members for weekend football accommodation and for council meetings. administration.
“It is clear to this court that such use does not constitute use as a fellowship or chapter house under the 1928 Act,” wrote Marshall.
In the summer of 2017, the house company rejected the sale of the property to former student and donor Donald Abbey. Previously, university officials had discussed buying the property from Abbey if he bought it and whether the deed was unrestricted.
Abbey – a Penn State graduate in 1970, a Beta Chapter alumnus, and a real estate investment mogul – has his own pending lawsuit against the house company. He is seeking repayment of $ 8.5 million he says he loaned to the section over more than a decade for repairs, renovations and operation of the house.
A funding agreement stipulated that the money would be repaid with interest if the property ceased to be used as a fraternity house, if the chapter “decides not to follow the lead of men of principle or is determined not to comply.” … ”
The house company maintains that Abbey had a grip on the chairman of the board who signed the deal and that the entire board never approved it. Because the house is the company’s only significant asset, they argued, Abbey’s lawsuit is essentially a means of gaining control of the property.
This case has been put on hold pending the outcome of the Penn State trial. A pre-trial conference is currently scheduled for March 16.