Connecticut Supreme Court overturns jury verdict for fraternity after long legal battle
First posted August 22, 2017 11:17pm EDT
Last updated March 31, 2022 12:24pm EDT
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Wesleyan University’s mandate that all fraternities become co-educational by 2017 led to a dispute between Delta Kappa Epsilon (DKE), an all-male fraternity, and the university administration. When undergraduate fraternity members were prevented by officials from living in the fraternity house, DKE, along with a group of Wesleyan alumni associated with the fraternity, sued the university.
Michael Roth is president of Wesleyan University. In 2014, he announced that fraternities there must become co-educational over the following three years.
Gary Breitbord is president of the Kent Literary Club, Delta Kappa Epsilon’s Wesleyan University alumni group. The club owns DKE’s house on High Street in Middletown, Connecticut, and has been unable to collect rent on the property since the university revoked its housing status.
Roth, along with Joshua Boger, chair of Wesleyan’s board of trustees, announced in September 2014 that fraternities associated with the university would be required to integrate and include women.
The university granted fraternities three years to implement the change. Student and alumni leaders of DKE disagreed with the mandate and internally deliberated about how their organization should respond, the Hartford Courant reports. Members of DKE claimed that they could not comply with Roth’s order, since the fraternity’s national organization did not permit women to become members, according to the Courant.
“Wesleyan said a few months later that DKE could meet the requirement by allowing women to live in the house with equal access to common areas,” the Courant reported.
In February 2015, DKE submitted a plan to university administrators that would allow women to live in the fraternity house. Specifically, the fraternity would offer six rooms to members of the sorority Rho Epsilon Pi, The Atlantic reported. Wesleyan rejected this plan and “revoked DKE’s housing status,” the Courant reported.
Starting in the fall of 2015, the university did not permit undergraduate members of DKE to live in the house, thereby preventing Kent Literary Club, the alumni group that owns it, from collecting rent on the property. Wesleyan found DKE’s plan to be insufficient, as “the organization did not include any timeline or detail for its proposed approach to partner with a sorority; nor did it adequately assure the university that female residents would have full and equal access to common areas of the house,” Wesleyan’s director of communications told The Atlantic.
DKE and the Kent Literary Club sued Wesleyan, seeking reinstatement for the fraternity house as university housing. DKE “accuse[d] the university of discrimination, misrepresentation and deceptive practices,” the Courant reported.
Connecticut jury awards damages to fraternity’s alumni group
The case went to trial at the Middlesex Superior Court in Middletown, Connecticut. In June 2017, a six-member jury awarded damages of $386,000 to the Kent Literary Club after finding that the alumni had been prevented from collecting rent, interfering with the fraternity’s business relationships. The jury also ruled that Wesleyan violated the Connecticut Unfair Trade Practices Act and made negligent misrepresentations.
“The verdict does not automatically reopen the fraternity house, but allows DKE to seek ‘equitable relief’ in court to argue for reinstating the fraternity’s housing status.”
Fraternity plans to address remaining issues outside of court
The jury’s verdict did not reopen the fraternity house as university housing for undergraduate members of the fraternity, but it did allow the fraternity to seek “equitable relief” in arguing for a change in the property’s housing status.
The Kent Literary Club hopes to address remaining issues with the university outside of court — a plan encouraged by Connecticut Superior Court Judge Edward S. Domnarski.
Gary Breitbord, president of the Kent Literary Club, told the Courant that his organization intends to address any remaining disagreements with the university outside of court. “We are gratified by the jury’s decision, which validates that we were acting in good faith and trying to meet the University’s requirements when we submitted a plan to co-educate our residence,” Breitbord said.
Wesleyan’s 2014 mandate that fraternities include women drastically changed the school’s Greek life. In 2016, The Wall Street Journal reported that “there are no frat houses left on campus.”
Connecticut Supreme Court overturns jury verdict
After the ruling, Wesleyan appealed the jury’s decision. On Dec. 18, 2018, the university then requested to transfer the case from the appellate court to the Connecticut Supreme Court to expedite proceedings, The Wesleyan Argus reported.
On March 5, 2021,the Connecticut Supreme Court, delivering a long awaited decision, unanimously reversed the jury’s verdict, ruling that the trial court “impermissibly expand[ed] the terms of the parties’ contractual relationship,” stated Wiggin and Dana, the law firm that represented the university. The court recognized that the verdict tied Wesleyan to a “long-term relationship” with DKE when the parties were “at the intersection of an intense, ongoing debate over gender inclusion, campus violence, and the role of the residential experience in the higher education mission.”
Among other issues, the Wiggin and Dana attorneys said that other verdicts were reversed because the trial court had failed to instruct the jury properly. The Connecticut Supreme Court remanded the case for a new trial, with required guidance on proper jury instruction, should the Kent Literary Club decide to retry the case.