Many legal disputes seem so terribly important to the litigants, while remarkably petty to outsiders, but few are as ridiculously insignificant as this battle between two sisters of Alpha Sigma Alpha at Penn State. That didn’t stop them from going to federal court.
Molly Brownstein, a Pennsylvania State University senior, and her family describe her roommate Rachel Lader as a classic mean girl – a “monster” and an “expert bully, with a Ph.D. in intimidation.”
Lader denies this and paints Brownstein as a coddled whiner, quick to turn to her parents to solve problems she created with her own standoffish behavior.
Harsh. It must be horrifying, exhausting, to be a sister of this sorority. Sorry, it’s wrong of me to trivialize their pain.
This week, Lader, a rising senior and aspiring lawyer, filed a defamation and breach-of-contract lawsuit in federal court in Philadelphia alleging that Brownstein’s parents – donors to the university and active alumni – used their influence at the school to manipulate a baseless disciplinary proceeding against her that ended with her being placed on academic probation and threatened with expulsion.
The Brownsteins’ primary complaints?
Lader allegedly played music too loud in the Barcelona apartment that the girls shared during a study-abroad trip earlier this year, brought a man back to their hotel room in Prague, and once – in a fit of frustration over Brownstein’s purported slovenliness – dumped a colander filled with pasta on her roommate’s bed.
And lest you think it’s just one co-ed’s word against another, there is hard proof behind this:
Brownstein’s story is detailed in an eight-page memo penned by her mother, Amy, filed with Penn State and included with Lader’s filings with the court this week.
The document, titled “A Mother’s Perspective,” details a string of slights that she says she observed from nearly 4,000 miles away.
She writes that Lader left her daughter behind on a planned trip to Copenhagen, actively sought to exclude her from conversation, then insisted during a trip to Prague on bringing a man back to their shared hotel room, forcing Brownstein to find other accommodations for the night.
This is a new one for me, the inclusion of an eight-page memo from mommy. It might not be solid evidence of its contents, but it’s damn strong evidence that somebody’s parent makes helicopter sounds, and that her li’l darling is a bit on the coddled whiner end of the spectrum.
But how, one might reasonably ask, does this nonsense get into federal court? Well, thank the trend toward every slight (“exclude her from conversation”?!?) being fodder for campus adjudication for that.
Her lawsuit, which names the Brownstein family and Penn State as defendants, asks a judge to vacate her disciplinary record and award damages for defamation and inflicting emotional distress.
Penn State got involved at the Brownsteins’ request in March, launching a disciplinary investigation against Lader while both women were attending school in Spain.
Lader was the target of a campus adjudication for Brownstein’s harassment complaints, and complains that Penn State treated her unfairly.
Lader contends in her lawsuit that the process was stacked against her from the start, and that the school’s investigators discounted any evidence she provided and relied primarily on the Brownsteins’ account.
It must really suck when the school’s investigators favor one side to the exclusion of the other, even though that happens occasionally, giving rise to the mantra “believe the victims.” And as is so often the case, the harm suffered is devastating.
“Rachel bullied me to the point where I had to leave in the middle of the night in an area where people get stabbed outside my building,” she wrote in a memo filed with the university included in Lader’s lawsuit. “Whenever I think about it, it brings me to a full-on terrible place and makes me completely depressed.”
Lader, in her court filings this week, balks at all of this, claiming she was the victim of a coordinated campaign to tarnish her academic record, leaving her a nervous wreck, suffering from maladies including migraines, anxiety, and colitis, which prompted a five-day hospital stay last month.
What parent can bear her daughter being turned into a “nervous wreck”? And given that it prompted a five-day hospital stay, can anyone doubt the depth of harm suffered?
But there remains an intractable problem that District Judge Timothy Savage will be asked to resolve. You see, the two women have signed a lease to room together off campus, and neither is willing to relinquish their leasehold, despite Penn State’s alleged efforts to extort a resolution to this dilemma.
According to emails filed with the suit, the school proposed that if Lader would break the lease and move out, Penn State would drop its probe.
Lader calls the proposed deal extortion. She refused, and days later received a letter saying she had been charged with harassment, a violation of the student code of conduct.
And with move-in day approaching on their new apartment this weekend, neither woman has shown an intention to back down on the issue of breaking the lease.
Will Judge Savage drop everything to address this pending disaster? Will this be resolved by the internal Alpha Sigma Alpha dance-off? Will this be a new reality television show on Bravo? Inquiring minds want to know.
H/T Josh Blackman, who closely follows all federal court sorority sister disputes.
* And, as required by social justice etiquette: