Lawsuit moves forward claiming LSU is tougher on sororities than fraternities, leading to pledge Max Gruver’s drinking death

Updated: May. 14, 2020 at 5:32 PM CDT
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(WAFB) - Louisiana’s flagship university, Louisiana State University (LSU), failed to convince courts to toss out a lawsuit that claims the university violated federal anti-discrimination laws.

The lawsuit claims LSU enforced harsher punishments against females than males accused of hazing in Greek letter organizations.

In turn, those actions made participating in Greek organizations more dangerous for male students, the lawsuit claims.

It says such behavior is a violation of a federal law, Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, that prohibits selective discrimination in education programs that receive federal money.

That includes selectively enforcing rules on the basis of sex.

LSU offered two explanations on why the lawsuit shouldn’t move forward.

The university’s attorneys argued Title IX can be used to enforce bans on sexual harassment, not against hazing that is non-sexual. They argued non-specific accusations of hazing fall outside of the scope of what the law bans.

The attorneys also argued the university is entitled to protections under the 11th Amendment. Those protections can be invoked to keep the state and state institutions from being sued in federal court by private citizens.

Judges in a district court and an appeals court shot down those claims.

Chief U.S. District Judge Shelly Dick said in July of 2019 that LSU’s hazing enforcement practices could have put male students more at risk of injury or death, and deserved to be heard by a jury.

LSU asked a higher court, the 5th Circuit court of appeals to overrule that decision.

A 5th Circuit panel declined to do so, however, saying LSU’s request was a long-shot to begin with.

The court panel noted it has ruled for nearly two decades that universities that accept federal funds cannot invoke those 11th Amendment protections. The initial ruling, in fact, came after a lawsuit involving LSU, the panel noted.

“We are not alone. Every circuit to consider the question—and all but one regional circuit has—agrees...,” the 5th Circuit panel wrote.

A favorable ruling for the family who filed the lawsuit against LSU could open the door for other families to sue colleges and universities based on similar claims.

That family consists of Stephen M. Gruver and Rae Ann Gruver, parents of former LSU student Max Gruver.

Gruver was an 18-year-old student who died in September of 2017 after participating in a hazing ritual called “bible study.”

The ritual encourages pledges in Gruver’s fraternity, Phi Delta Theta, to chug 190 proof alcohol if they give the wrong answer when asked questions about the fraternity, court documents state.

Gruver died the morning after he participated in the ritual.

An autopsy revealed Gruver’s blood-alcohol level at the time of his death was 0.495 percent, more than six times the legal limit to drive in Louisiana.

THC, the chemical found in marijuana, was also found in his system.

It was Gruver’s first semester of college.

The lawsuit says the “bible study” wouldn’t have taken place if either LSU or Phi Delta Theta addressed complaints of hazing in the years before Gruver’s death.

It claims LSU supported a culture of “long-held, outdated, and archaic gender stereotypes about men.”

Those stereotypes meant hazing among females was unacceptable and “aggressively and appropriately” addressed.

At the same time those stereotypes, “minimizes the hazing of males as ‘boys being boys’ engaging in masculine rites of passage,” which are related to “deliberate indifference to allegations of hazing of male students,” the lawsuit states.

The suit claims that LSU chooses not to publicize or disclose the numerous incidents of injury, death, and misconduct of fraternities on campus, including male pledges at LSU dying, being hospitalized for dangerous alcohol consumption, suffering broken ribs, cigarette burns, and other serious physical injuries.

During the five years prior to Gruver’s death, there were at least six investigations involving fraternities for excessive consumption of alcohol. None of those fraternities had their chapters permanently revoked.

One alleged 2016 incident involving Gruver’s fraternity, in which members allegedly admitted to hazing, resulted in the organization being placed on interim suspension for a month.

The lawsuit contrasts that punishment with punishment against a sorority accused of hazing its pledges by making them sing songs, do sit-ups, and putting whipped cream, syrup, and eggs in their hair.

That sorority was given “Total Probation” by LSU — the most severe sanction LSU can impose, short of rescinding its recognition of the sorority.

The lawsuit also critiques LSU for allegedly allowing members of Greek letter organizations to perform investigations into the allegations against their own organizations.

LSU does not allow other students or student organizations to investigate themselves following allegations of dangerous or illegal misconduct or policy violations, the lawsuit states.

The lawsuit says this creates a culture where LSU knowingly allows Greek letter organizations to submit lies about the information they discovered during internal investigations.

The family is seeking a jury trial and a judgment of no less than $25 million.

Outside of the family’s battle against LSU, members in the same fraternity as Gruver continue to face East Baton Rouge Parish officials in court after being arrested because of Gruver’s death.

One fraternity member linked to Gruver’s death, Matthew Naquin, was convicted of negligent homicide in November of 2019, after stricter laws were passed against hazing.

Naquin’s attorneys attempted to defend him by claiming Gruver drank alcohol and smoked marijuana excessively during his month on LSU’s campus.

Gruver’s roommate said Max was “sober for maybe five of those nights” during the month he lived on LSU’s campus, court filings submitted by Naquin’s attorneys stated. One witness told investigators Gruver appeared more intoxicated at another event other than on the night he died, documents show.

“Let the victim shaming begin,” wrote Gruver’s parents in a Facebook post.

Naquin was also charged with obstruction after prosecutors claimed nearly 700 files went missing from Naquin’s phone 45 minutes after he learned investigators issued a search warrant for his device.

Naquin was ultimately given a five-year maximum sentence, with two and a half years suspended. Naquin was also sentenced to three years of probation and 1,000 hours of community service work.

As part of his sentence, Naquin was also required to write a letter of apology to the Gruver’s parents and present a one-hour hazing talk to high schools a handful of times.

Legal officials said Naquin is expected to be in jail for only a few months after completing certain classes.

Two other fraternity members, Sean-Paul Gott and Ryan Isto, were sentenced to 30 days in prison with credit for time served. They were also ordered to pay $100 fines.

The two pleaded no contest to misdemeanor hazing charges in September of 2018.

Other battles about the case took place among state lawmakers who worked to pass stricter laws against hazing.

Governor John Bel Edwards would go on to sign a package of four bills named the “Max Gruver Act” in 2018.

One bill made hazing a felony. It was previously a misdemeanor.

The other bills require colleges to provide hazing education and prevention training, require schools to provide protection for those who report cases of hazing, and penalize those who do not seek help for someone in need.

Anyone found to have participated in hazing that leaves someone seriously injured or dead would get a prison term of up to five years and a fine that cannot exceed $10,000.

Still, some hazing scandals continue to come to light.

In 2019, nine members of Delta Kappa Epsilon were accused of kicking pledges with steel-toed boots, attempting to burn them with cigarettes, and forcing pledges to submerge themselves in an ice machine in their underwear.

Cade Duckworth, one of the nine arrested, allegedly urinated on pledges, his arrest report said.

“The victim stated that after he was taken out of the ice machine, he was made to lay in the nearby basketball court. He stated that the basketball court had broken glass all over it, which he was made to lie on top of,” the arrest report states. “The victim stated that another pledge was made to lie on the court next to him, face down while they were both sprayed with a hose, had milk crates thrown at them, and were urinated on.”

Malcom McNiece was “known” to pour gasoline on pledges, according to arrest documents.

A pledge complained about having trouble seeing because gasoline had gotten into his eyes and was rushed to a shower to wash off, documents show.

The reports also detail instances where pledges were forced to lie in a “planking” position while being forced to drink two 40-ounce beers duct-taped to their hands, unable to move or remove the bottles until the drinks were gone.

Other details in the reports talk of forcing pledges to stand in the shower, holding milk crates filled with ice and cayenne pepper or Tony Chachere’s above their heads, with cold water running from the shower, causing the ice to melt and the irritants to drip into the pledges’ eyes.

Additionally, a hazing investigation into the LSU chapter of Pi Kappa Phi that began in October of 2018 ended in May of 2019 with the fraternity and the university making a mutual decision to close the chapter.

Phi Delta Theta was banned from LSU’s campus until at least 2033 as a result of Gruver’s death.

LSU previously said it continues to review, update, and enforce its policies on hazing and Greek letter organizations.

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