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Williams v. Wendler

August 23, 2007


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Gilbert, District Judge


I. Introduction

On November 2, 2004, Chantel Conley, a student at Southern Illinois University (SIU) in Carbondale, Illinois, filed a police report with the SIU Department of Security. She claimed Monet Williams, Tequeira Johnson, Nakia Collins (collectively, plaintiffs) and other members of the Zeta Phi Beta (Zetas) sorority hazed her on October 3, 2004 and October 6, 2004. Among other things, she claimed the Zetas paddled her and her fellow pledges. At Conley's request, the Department of Security forwarded the complaint to SIU's Office of Student Judicial Affairs.

Khamisi Grace, a hearing officer with the Office of Student Judicial Affairs (Office), charged plaintiffs with hazing. Grace conducted a hearing and suspended Williams, Johnson, and Collins from the University for a period of three years. The plaintiffs unsuccessfully appealed their suspensions at various levels. SIU's Chancellor, defendant Walter Wendler, did, however, reduce Williams's punishment to a two-year suspension. Plaintiffs claim defendants violated the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment and Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000d, because they treated them harsher than similarly situated students of an unprotected class.

The defendants have moved for summary judgment on the two claims remaining in the complaint (Doc. 106). The plaintiffs have responded to this motion (Doc. 113), and the defendants have replied to their response (Doc. 138). Having reviewed the briefs and the record in this case, the Court is prepared to rule.

II. Standard

Summary judgment is appropriate where "the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law." Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c); see Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986); Spath v. Hayes Wheels Int'l-Ind., Inc., 211 F.3d 392, 396 (7th Cir. 2000). In determining the existence of a genuine dispute of material fact, the Court construes all facts in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party and draws all reasonable inferences in favor of that party. See Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 255 (1986); Spath, 211 F.3d at 396.

If the moving party meets its burden, the nonmoving party has the burden "to go beyond the pleadings and affirmatively demonstrate, by specific factual allegations, that there is a genuine issue of material fact which requires trial." Borello v. Allison, 446 F.3d 742, 748 (7th Cir. 2006) (internal quotation marks and citations omitted); Celotex, 477 U.S. at 322-26; Johnson v. City of Fort Wayne, 91 F.3d 922, 931 (7th Cir. 1996). A genuine issue of material fact is not demonstrated by the mere existence of "some alleged factual dispute between the parties," Anderson, 477 U.S. at 247, or by "some metaphysical doubt as to the material facts," Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 586 (1986). Rather, a genuine issue of material fact exists only if "a fair-minded jury could return a verdict for the [nonmoving party] on the evidence presented." Anderson, 477 U.S. at 252; Insolia v. Phillip Morris Inc., 216 F.3d 596 (7th Cir. 2000).

III. Background

Plaintiffs base their assertions of disparate treatment on SIU's response to hazing incidents involving two white*fn1 fraternities: Pi Kappa Alpha (Pikes) and Delta Chi (D-Chi).

A. Pikes

A young man pledging the Pikes in the spring of 2004 died while on a fraternity-related canoe trip with his pledge brothers and several members of the active chapter of the fraternity (the actives).*fn2 Early in the morning of April 4, 2004, the decedent and a fellow pledge tipped their canoe during a late night jaunt into the lake. One of them survived, but the other did not. The decedent's autopsy showed he was drunk when he died.

The University and local authorities conducted investigations into the drowning. The Jackson County State's Attorney Office charged one of the actives on the trip, Bjorn Westlund, with unlawfully providing alcohol to the decedent before his death. Westlund, who is white, pleaded guilty and paid a fine.*fn3

SIU's Student Development Office also investigated the incident. Its Director, Katherine Sermersheim, conducted a hearing into the events leading up to the pledge's death. Among others, she interviewed the Pikes' president and several of its actives. She found that individual members of the fraternity gave suspiciously diverging accounts of the events surrounding the pledge's death, and determined that the Pikes as a whole violated SIU's alcohol ...

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