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When Study Abroad Goes Wrong - Penn State Edition

Posted by Joseph D. Lento | Aug 22, 2016 | 0 Comments

Two Penn State University students are facing off in United States Federal Court in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, after a semester abroad went wrong.  Both students, sisters in the Alpha Sigma Alpha sorority, studied abroad in Barcelona, Spain, this past school year.  Molly Brownstein, a senior, and her roommate, Rachel Lader, a rising senior, are the students involved in the dispute.  Brownstein and her family describe Lader as a classic mean girl, a "monster", and an "expert bully with a Ph.D. in intimidation."  Lader describes Brownstein as a "coddled whiner" who turned to her influential parents, both Penn State alumni, to solve their daughter's problems which she created with her own obnoxious behavior.

Student's Parents, Now Defendants, "Used Their Influence"

Last week, Lader, an aspiring attorney, filed a lawsuit in Philadelphia United States District Court against the Brownstein family and Penn State, asserting defamation and breach of contract.  Lader alleges that Brownstein's parents, active Penn State alumni and donors to the University, used their influence at Penn State to orchestrate a baseless student disciplinary proceeding against her which resulted in her being placed on conduct probation and threatened with expulsion from the University. 

Why did Penn State investigate and discipline Lader?  According to the Brownsteins, Lader: 1) actively sought to exclude their daughter from conversation; 2) played music too loudly in the Barcelona apartment that the two students shared while abroad; 2) dumped a colander filled with pasta on Brownstein's bed; 4) brought a man back to their shared hotel room while on a trip to Prague; and 5) left their daughter behind on a planned trip to Copenhagen.  Brownstein's father, Marc, the CEO of a Philadelphia advertising agency, the Brownstein Group, contends that his daughter was the victim of ongoing bullying that brought her to contemplating suicide.

While Penn State was investigating the matter during the student disciplinary process, Brownstein submitted a written memorandum to the University which stated: "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...Whenever I think about it, it brings me to a full-on terrible place and makes me completely depressed."  This statement, included in Lader's federal lawsuit, highlights the fact that whatever takes place during the student disciplinary process can potentially be used at a later time; be it against the accused student, or in other cases such as in the dispute between Lader and Brownstein, against the complainant and the University itself. 

This is why students involved in the student disciplinary process (and their parents) must understand the potential implications that what is said and done in the college and university setting can be brought up during criminal proceedings and/or civil litigation.  This is of particular concern when a student is accused of code of conduct disciplinary violations that can expose them to criminal liability (as well as civil liability).  Title IX sexual misconduct charges in particular can expose an accused student to potential severe consequences outside of the college and university setting.

Academic Record Tarnished

In her court filings, Lader rejects the Brownsteins' claims, and alleges that she was the victim of a coordinated campaign by the Brownsteins and Penn State University to tarnish her academic record (which would jeopardize her chances of attending law school), leaving Lader a nervous wreck  and suffering from maladies including migraine headaches, severe anxiety, and colitis, which prompted a five-day hospital stay in July.  Lader is asking the court to vacate her disciplinary record and award her damages for defamation and inflicting emotional distress.

Vacating a student's college or university disciplinary record through federal litigation is not easy, but it is possible under certain circumstances.

Lader's court filings also contend that the "willingness of Penn State to acquiesce to the inappropriate and harmful demands of a large money donor shocks the conscience...[and] the extent to which Marc A. Brownstein is willing to pervert his power and influence as a large-money Penn State donor for the purpose of intentionally harming [a Penn State student] is equally disturbing."

After Brownstein's parents asked Penn State to investigate Lader, Lader wrote to Penn State officials that "the alleged conduct complained of by Molly Brownstein is without any merit and is nothing more than slander and harassment by [her] and her mother to have me thrown out of school."

In light of the pendency of the legal proceedings, Penn State has not commented on the disciplinary investigation, which began this past March, nor on the disciplinary proceedings against Lader.

Unfair Disciplinary Process

In her lawsuit, Lader contends that the Penn State student conduct disciplinary process was unfair from the start.  Lader submits that the investigators assigned to the disciplinary case by Penn State were biased, disregarded evidence submitted by Lader to counter the Brownsteins' claims, and ignored her account of the dispute in favor of the Brownsteins'.  During the Penn State student disciplinary process, a Penn State administrator proposed a "deal" to Lader that the school would "drop" the disciplinary proceedings against her if she would terminate the lease that she had signed with Brownstein (prior to leaving for Spain) to live together at a State College off-campus apartment for the 2016-2017 school year.

Penn State's proposal regarding this "deal" was communicated to Lader via email, and these emails were filed as part of Lader's lawsuit.  At the time the deal was proposed, Lader considered Penn State's actions to be extortion; she therefore refused to agree to the deal, and shortly thereafter, Lader received notice from the school indicating that she had been charged with harassment, a violation of Penn's State Code of Conduct.

In order to move forward, Lader ultimately resolved the disciplinary case against her by agreeing to a semester of "conduct (disciplinary) probation" on the condition that the Brownsteins not be informed of the outcome of the disciplinary investigation and her disciplinary sanction.   According to Lader's lawsuit, and to her dismay, the Brownsteins found out immediately.

Not So Happy in Happy Valley

The matter continues to work its way through Philadelphia Federal Court, with United States District Judge Timothy Savage presiding.  Legal proceedings aside, there also remains the outstanding issue that neither student has terminated the lease for their off-campus apartment.  With the fall semester about to start, and if neither student decides to yield, all may not be happy in Happy Valley for these two Penn State sorority sisters.

About the Author

Joseph D. Lento

"I pride myself on having heart and driving hard to get results!" Joseph D. Lento has more than a decade of experience passionately fighting for the futures of his clients. Mr. Lento represents students and others in disciplinary cases and other proceedings at universities and colleges across the United States while concurrently fighting in criminal courtrooms in Philadelphia, the Pennsylvania counties, and New Jersey. Mr. Lento has helped countless students, professors, and others in academia at more than a thousand universities and colleges across the United States. He does not settle for the easiest outcome, and instead prioritizes his clients' needs and well-being. Joseph D. Lento is licensed in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and New York, and is admitted pro hac vice as needed nationwide.

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