Iowa High Court Lowers Award to Fraternity Over Secret Taping

February 23, 2009

The Iowa Supreme Court on Friday ordered a district court to lower the amount of damages awarded to a University of Iowa fraternity over a secretly recorded audiotape used to punish it for an alleged hazing violation.

The Supreme Court said in its ruling that it disagreed with a Johnson County District Court award of nearly $165,000 in punitive and actual damages, and it sent the case back to the district court for a judgment of about $110,000.

According to court records, the case involved a student named Elmer Vejar, who pledged to become a member of the Iowa Beta Chapter of Phi Delta Theta Fraternity in 2000.

Vejar wasn’t able to maintain the grade point average to become a member, but he was allowed to live at the fraternity house and pay rent in summer 2001. Because he wasn’t a member, Vejar wasn’t allowed into the fraternity’s meetings, which were held in a basement meeting room.

In October 2001, court records said Vejar made a verbal complaint to Phillip Jones, at that time the university’s vice president of student services and dean of students. The complaint claimed the fraternity violated hazing and alcohol policies.

Jones told Vejar he had to make a formal, signed complaint and provide evidence in order for the university to investigate.

About a month-and-a-half later, Vejar submitted a six-page statement and a two-and-a-half hour recording of one of the chapter’s meetings. Court records said Vejar obtained the recording by concealing an audio-recording device in the fraternity’s meeting room.

The recording was of an alleged hazing incident that occurred in August 2001 that reportedly consisted of a military-style lineup where active members were addressed as “hell masters” and pledges were trained.

Jones began corresponding with fraternity officials, and in January 2002 he decided to revoke the fraternity’s recognition for a period of at least one year for the alleged alcohol and hazing violations. Court records said he cited the recording as evidence.

The fraternity acknowledged an alcohol violation, but contested the hazing violation. It appealed Jones’ decision and a formal hearing was scheduled for August 2003. During the hearing, the tape recording was submitted as evidence.

The following month a hearing officer decided to continue the university’s derecognition of the fraternity as its punishment.

A day later, an attorney for the fraternity sent a fax to the hearings officer and an attorney for the university citing Iowa Code regarding the interception and use of recorded communication as evidence.

Two months later, the university informed the fraternity that the hazing charge was being dropped, but that the sanction for the alcohol violation was the continued revocation of the university recognition of the fraternity charter for an indefinite period.

The fraternity also appealed that decision, and the University of Iowa president at the time, David Skorton, heard the appeal. In June 2004 Skorton found that the time that had passed as the case was pending was an appropriate sanction.

In February 2005, the fraternity and the Phi Delta Theta House Association filed a lawsuit against the state, the university, Jones and other officials alleging that they violated Iowa law, which prohibited the use of the secretly taped recording as evidence.

The district court dismissed the other officials as defendants, and dismissed the house association’s claim. It found in favor of the fraternity and awarded it $98,300 in liquidated damages as well as $5,000 in punitive damages against Jones. It also awarded the fraternity more than $61,000 in attorney fees.

In its ruling, the Supreme court reverses the $5,000 punitive damage against Jones, saying nothing in the record shows Jones “voluntarily, intentionally, or recklessly violated a known legal duty.”

The court also found that more than $24,000 in attorney fees and costs that were incurred during the administrative process didn’t qualify for reimbursement.

The liquidated damage award was lowered to $73,200 in the ruling, with the Supreme Court finding that the duration of the fraternity’s challenge in which the recording was used as evidence was only 732 days, shorter than the 983 days the district court found.


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