September 24, 2012

Court Hearing in Desdunes ’13 Civil Suit Delayed Until October

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A court hearing originally scheduled for Thursday to decide whether the University must hand over documents related to the death of George Desdunes ’13 in February 2011 has been delayed until October.

Desdunes, a member of the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity, died on Feb. 25, 2011 after a fraternity hazing ritual. His mother, Marie Lourdes Andre, is suing the national SAE fraternity and at least 15 former brothers, seeking at least $25 million in damages. She contends that the incident exemplifies a broader culture of recklessness at SAE that is inherently “deadly.”

The hearing was originally scheduled for Thursday in Brooklyn, where Andre lives. However, it was delayed until Oct. 25.

At the hearing next month, Judge Karen Rothenberg will decide whether to allow a subpoena filed earlier this month by Andre’s lawyers that would require Cornell to hand over any information related to the fraternity’s “knowledge of the extreme and dangerous — in fact, deadly — hazing that the individual defendants and defendant New York Alpha chapter were engaging in,” according to the lawsuit. The documents have become a key source of contention in the civil lawsuit.

The subpoena would put before the court all existing Office of Fraternity and Sorority Affairs records related to SAE hazing violations from the last several years, all recent police and medical calls related to the fraternity and all “photographs or videotapes of any SAE fraternity event or initiation” owned by Cornell. It would also require the University to hand over all disciplinary records against SAE and any correspondence between the University and the fraternity about hazing.

Those documents, however, may never be admitted into evidence. The defense has argued that they fall under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, a federal law that protects students’ educational records, and thus cannot be handed over to the court.

“[Andre’s] counsel entirely ignores the limitations to be placed on the subpoena under [FERPA],” Dara Rosenbaum, the lawyer of a former SAE member, stated in court documents filed this summer. The “disclosure … would constitute a violation of [the defendant’s] rights and must be prevented.”

William Friedlander, Andre’s lawyer, disagreed in recently filed court documents.

“Contrary to the portrait painted in defendant’s motion, the subpoena does not seek unqualified access to individual students’ educational records, but only information relevant to the conditions and circumstances surrounding and leading to George’s death,” Friedlander said.

Original Author: David Marten