Blog : Virginia

Rolling Stone & The Fierberg National Law Group Take Aim at Frat’s Reputation in VA Defamation Suit

The Fierberg National Law Group Is Part of The Legal Team Representing Rolling Stone Magazine in Defamation Lawsuit Brought By Phi Kappa Psi Fraternities.

A synopsis of The Fierberg National Law Group‘s recent briefing on behalf of Rolling Stone – as reported by Ashley Cullins of The Hollywood Reporter – reads:

Rolling Stone argues records involving sexual assault at nationwide Phi Kappa Psi fraternities are paramount to its defamation fight against the Virginia Alpha Chapter over its since-redacted story of the gang rape of a University of Virginia student named “Jackie” that purportedly occurred at its campus frat house. And while the magazine knocked out a defamation suit from a handful of fraternity brothers, this is but the first round of a $25 million fight with the chapter itself. 

PKP has filed motions to quash subpoenas for documents regarding “claims, investigations, risk assessments, and disciplinary actions relating to incidents of sexual misconduct, alcohol abuse, and/or fraternity hazing” that involve PKP as a whole and other local chapters. Rolling Stone argues the documents are relevant because the national organization’s brand and the local chapter’s reputation are “inextricably intertwined.” 

“If other chapters of PKP nationwide have been disciplined and/or suspended in response to incidents of sexual assault and hazing, those incidents affect the value of the reputation that goes along with being recognized in the world as a ‘Phi Kappa Psi brother’ and, accordingly, are relevant to the damages claimed by VAC,” writes attorney Robert Hall.

In its motion to quash, PKP argues that VAC is a separate entity from the national organization and any harm to its reputation and membership are specific to the local chapter. “In regards to PKP and the Other Chapters, the information requested is not relevant to the litigation nor is it likely to lead to admissible evidence,” writes attorney Dirk McClanahan. “For example, assuming arguendo there was a hazing or sexual misconduct incident in Ames, Iowa, that incident would not prove or disprove the truth of an article that wrongly accused a party of a detailed and specific gang-rape allegation in Charlottesville, VA.” Alternatively, the organization asked the court to designate any materials produced as in camera only, attorney’s eyes only or confidential. 

Rolling Stone, The Fierberg National Law Group, Phi Kappa Psi Fraternity, University of Virginia, Fraternity sexual assault, college sexual assault, university sexual assault, Title IX
Phi Kappa Psi fraternity, Virginia Alpha Chapter house at The University of Virginia in Charlottesville, VA.  Jay Paul / Getty Images

The magazine’s lawyers pulled no punches in the responding memo filed March 27, indicating the fraternity chose not to speak up before the story ran. 

“While numerous criticisms have been leveled at Rolling Stone, entirely missing from that discourse, until now, are the conscious decisions by VAC, guided by multiple lawyers, public relations experts, and national and alumni advisors to assume the risk of remaining largely silent and not sharing with Rolling Stone…the factual discrepancies in Jackie’s story of which they were aware before and immediately after the Article was published,” writes Hall. “For had they done so, the Article never would have been published.”

Rolling Stone argues that for at least two months before its article was published, both the local chapter and national organization were “regularly advised” by university staff regarding the allegations.

“The initial failure by VAC and PKP to instantly and categorically deny the allegations is evidence that they believed, like multiple trained personnel at UVA, that these extreme allegations of sexual violence and wrongdoing at a VAC event were plausible,” writes Hall.

Further, the magazine argues that the fraternity had “the knowledge, power, choice and wealth of opportunity to mitigate or avoid the harm it allegedly suffered from the Article,” and the motivation for the lawsuit is money.

“The award sought would underwrite VAC’s operations for some 160 years, or until approximately the year 2177,” writes Hall. “This is a particularly egregious demand given that VAC did not lose any members post-publication.” 

The magazine also argues that PKP failed to show that the records sought warrant in camera only or attorney’s eyes only protection. It does not object to a confidential designation under a previously stipulated protective order.

A hearing on the matter is set for Wednesday afternoon in Charlottesville Circuit Court. Trial is currently scheduled to begin Oct. 23.

Rolling Stone also is appealing a highly controversial ruling in the defamation suit brought by then-UVA associate dean Nicole Eramo. The court found story itself wasn’t defamatory, but rather the magazine defamed the dean when it appended the original story with a retraction. Many in the legal industry and the press have warned that the ruling, if it stands, will likely chill media apologies.

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Virginia Tech Massacre

In re April 16, 2007 Massacre at Virginia Tech University.  Represent 20 families who suffered devastating losses as a result of the massacre of students and faculty on the campus of Virginia Tech.  Numerous clients lost loved ones, while others suffered severe and permanent injuries as a result of violent gunshot wounds.  While Virginia Tech was widely praised (by its own officials and from many outside sources) for its handling of the events leading to and following the tragedy, our investigation revealed substantial evidence demonstrating the University’s potential liability for gross negligence.  That evidence included the disclosure of e-mails from University personnel confirming that certain buildings had gone into lockdown following the murders in West Ambler Johnston and prior to the onset of the larger massacre at Norris Hall, and that University personnel had been warned to stay off campus before Cho opened fire at Norris Hall.  As well, the evidence revealed that the University Policy Group revised the e-mail correspondence ultimately sent out at 9:26 a.m., removing references to the facts that one student had died and another was in critical condition at an area hospital as a result of gunshot wounds suffered in a dormitory room.

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Virginia Hazing Case: Estate of Deceased College Student v. Alpha Tau Omega Fraternity.

Represented the family of a freshman at Old Dominion University who aspirated on his vomit and died following the fraternity’s hazing during Big Brother/Little Brother night.  At the beginning of that evening, four fraternity pledges sought to satisfy the requirements for obtaining membership.  By the end of that evening, all four had lost consciousness from alcohol intoxication.  The Client died later that morning, and another pledge was rushed to the hospital in critical condition.  Discovery in the case uncovered the local chapter’s “Top 100” list of fraternity memories, and 11 of the top 12 memories involved drinking or puking from alcohol.  The Washington Post featured this incident in an article focusing on the prevalence of these types of fatalities in college.  The family accepted a substantial financial settlement prior to trial, which also included non-monetary terms designed to forever change the chapter, its alcohol policies, and prevent hazing death.  More about this case can be read here.

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Virginia Personal Injury: Client v. Band, Landlord, and Numerous Others.

Represented a young man who sustained a traumatic brain injury and other extensive injuries when he and four others were pushed out of a third-story window at a music concert at “Solar Haus” in Blacksburg, Virginia. For some 20 or so years, Solar Haus had been holding crowded, commercial concerts despite the fact that it was built and zoned exclusively for residential use and lacked a public hall permit.  During the concert, which was held on the third floor of the apartment, part of the audience was encouraged to mosh by the band, and this continued without control by the concert’s sponsors.  The group of moshers stumbled into the Client and four or so other attendees who were standing away from the moshing at the back of the room.  The Client fell back against a mattress that was apparently covering a window so that noise from the concerts did not disturb neighboring residential properties. The window frame broke away, and the Client and four others fell three stories onto concrete.  One person died from the fall.  The litigation was settled prior to trial against all defendants for a substantial sum of money. Media coverage of this case can be viewed here.

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Virginia Sexual Assault: John Doe, a Minor v. Unidentified Military Academy et al.

Represented a family in civil claims resulting from numerous sexual assaults of a minor student by a superior cadet.  The cadet was able to gain access to the student’s dorm room by virtue of the authority conveyed upon him through the private military academy’s chain of command.  A substantial, confidential financial settlement was obtained for the young victim and his mother shortly after litigation was filed.  The cadet who inflicted injuries on my client was incarcerated.

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