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Meyer v. Beta Tau House Corp.

Court of Appeals of Indiana

April 21, 2015

Andrew Meyer, Appellant-Plaintiff,
v.
Beta Tau House Corporation, Beta Tau of Sigma Pi, Sigma Pi Fraternity International, Inc., and Quentin Calder, Appellees-Defendants

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Appeal from the Porter Superior Court. The Honorable Roger V. Bradford, Judge. Cause No. 64D01-1103-CT-2429.

ATTORNEY FOR APPELLANT: Richard C. Wolter, Merrillville, Indiana.

ATTORNEY FOR APPELLEES: Jonathan Halm, Abrahamson, Reed & Bilse Hammond, Indiana.

Baker, Judge. Najam, J., and Friedlander, J., concur.

OPINION

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Baker, Judge.

[¶1] Andrew Meyer filed a complaint against Beta Tau House Corporation (House Corporation), Beta Tau of Sigma Pi (Beta Tau), Sigma Pi Fraternity International, Inc. (Sigma Pi), and Quentin Calder. At issue in this appeal are Meyer's claims for negligence against House Corporation, Beta Tau, and Sigma Pi; violation of the Dram Shop Act[1] against Beta Tau; and defamation against Calder and the House Corporation. The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of the defendants on all of these claims. Meyer argues that the summary judgment order was erroneous because there are genuine issues of material fact related to each claim. Finding no error, we affirm.

Facts

The Parties

[¶2] Sigma Pi is a men's collegiate fraternal organization that charters local chapters of the fraternity. In 2009, Sigma Pi had over 120 local chapters in the United States and Canada. Beta Tau, which is affiliated with Valparaiso University, is one of the local chapters chartered by Sigma Pi. Beta Tau's relationship with Sigma Pi is governed by Sigma Pi's Constitution and By-Laws. Compliance with these documents is monitored from time to time by an alumni volunteer who serves as a liaison between a local chapter and Sigma Pi. The method by which local chapters implement Sigma Pi's standards are determined by each local chapter. In other words, each chapter must abide by general standards and policies but retains the independence to determine the way in which it will enforce such policies. Each local chapter has its own set of by-laws. Sigma Pi does not control, manage, or supervise the daily activities of its local chapters.

[¶3] Sigma Pi discourages alcohol abuse at its local chapters, and has disciplined chapters for incidents of alcohol abuse in the past. It instructs local chapters in risk management guidelines related to alcohol abuse.

[¶4] House Corporation owns two houses for Beta Tau members. The houses are located at 803 (the 803 house) and 805 (the 805 house) Brown Street in Valparaiso. House Corporation owns the real estate and leases the houses to undergraduate members of Beta Tau. All activity incident to ownership of the property, including finances and maintenance, is conducted by House Corporation. House Corporation does not control, manage, or supervise the daily activities of fraternity members who visit or live in the houses.

[¶5] During the relevant period of time, Meyer and Daniel Meals were students of Valparaiso University and members of Beta Tau, and both were over the age of twenty-one. Meals lived in the 803 house;

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Meyer did not live in either house. Calder was an alumni member of Beta Tau and the president of the House Corporation. He served as a volunteer.

Prologue

[¶6] In May 2008, Meyer poured urine on the windshield of Meals's truck. Meals then punched Meyer in the nose. Meyer did not report the incident to Sigma Pi or House Corporation, and although some of the Beta Tau members became aware of the incident, he did not make a formal report of the altercation or request that any action be taken against Meals.

The Incident

[¶7] On March 20, 2009, Meyer began drinking alcohol at approximately 6:00 p.m. at a local restaurant. He continued drinking in his apartment for several hours, until approximately 11:00 p.m. At that time, Meyer went to the 805 house with a group of his friends to socialize with a group of members, alumni, and pledges that had gathered there, including Meals. Meyer brought a handle of whiskey to share with the group. Meyer remembers drinking the whiskey at this gathering and does not recall drinking anything else. Meyer remembers seeing beer in the refrigerator of the 805 house, but cannot recall how much beer there was, who it belonged to, what kind of beer it was, or who purchased it. Meyer recalls seeing alcohol being served from the bar, and believes the alcohol had been brought by various members. Although Meyer claims that he saw Meals drinking alcohol that night, he does not remember what kind of alcohol it was, and does not recall if Meals was drinking the beer from the refrigerator.

[¶8] At approximately 2:30 a.m., Meyer and Chris Tormos left the 805 house and went next door to the 803 house. Meyer and Tormos socialized for approximately half an hour. Meyer characterizes this gathering as a party, but the only other person present in the house was Meals's girlfriend, who was in Meals's room. Around 3:00 a.m., Meyer and Tormos began calling friends in an attempt to find a ride home. Meyer admits that he was drunk at this time.

[¶9] While Meyer was leaving a voicemail for a friend, Meals walked into the house. The rest of the incident was recorded on the voicemail message. As soon as Meals walked in the door, Meyer called him an " asshole" twice and Tormos demanded of Meals, " who the fuck are you?" Appellees' App. p. 84. A heated verbal exchange followed, during which Meyer taunted and goaded Meals, shouting at him to " move the fuck on." Id. Tormos attempted to calm the situation, repeatedly telling Meyer to " shut the fuck up," while Meals's girlfriend repeatedly told Meals to " stop." Id. The exchange turned physical. While Meyer and Meals dispute who first resorted to physical violence, Meyer sustained injuries as a result of the altercation.

The Aftermath

[¶10] The day after the incident, Meyer filed a police report. That same day, Calder found out about the incident from Meals and other members. Calder eventually learned that Meyer had filed a police report.

[¶11] Calder began a discussion with Karl Strasen, who was President of Beta Tau, and Matt Smith, who was Beta Tau's liaison to alumni members, about the incident. They discussed how to address the legal and personal conflict between Meyer and Meals. Smith and Strasen reported that Meyer had been visiting the houses after he filed the report, and that his visits were causing divisions within Beta Tau's membership. Calder became concerned about the visits exacerbating an already tense

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situation and about Meyer's decision to publicly press charges against Meals and the effects that could have on Beta Tau and House Corporation. Calder obtained input from Mark Briscoe, the President of Sigma Pi, and Jennifer Jones Hall, the Assistant Dean of Greek Life at Valparaiso University.

[¶12] Calder decided to make a non-binding request that Meyer stay away from the fraternity premises until further notice. On March 25, 2009, Calder sent a letter to Meyer (the Letter). The Letter was carbon copied to the four other officers of the House Corporation and to Strasen. Among other things, the Letter stated as follows:

. . . Given that you don't remember the events that took place on that morning I am of the mindset that you are actually more interested in settling an outstanding vandetta [sic] against a current active member living at the house than in getting some type of justice.
The police report you filed is now being viewed by everyone, this includes the University and other alumni as well as the city. Being that you are aware House Corporation's next step is to try and get a permit to replace the foundation of the house, I consider this frivolous attempt at retribution as a blatent [sic] disregard for the fraternity and the House Corporation as a whole.
I cannot allow an active member to use the law and the fraternity grounds to settle a score.
That said, since the member you have filed charges against is currently living at the fraternity house and you are not, I would highly recommend that you avoid the fraternity properties until further notice.
***
Should additional actions of yours come to light that further prove your intentions of retribution[,] the [H]ouse [C]orporation will re-evaluate the situation at that time.

Appellant's App. p. 463.

[¶13] Thereafter, Meyer pursued Valparaiso University Campus Judiciary Board proceedings against Meals. As a result of these proceedings, Meals was suspended for one semester and prohibited from being on campus or attending off-campus University events during that time.

[¶14] Calder learned that Meyer had still been visiting the fraternity houses after receiving the Letter. Consequently, on May 23, 2009, Calder sent an email to Meyer, stating, " [a]s promised in my previous communication to Mr. Meyer in relation to his continuing 'vendetta' against Dan Meals, Andrew Meyer is hereby banned from the Sigma Pi properties . . . indefinitely." Id. at 464. The House Corporation officers, Strasen, and Smith were carbon copied on the email.

The Litigation

[¶15] On March 18, 2011, Meyer filed a complaint against the Defendants. He included the following claims: (1) assault and battery against Meals; [2](2) negligence against Sigma Pi, Beta Tau, and the House Corporation; (3) violation of the Dram Shop Law against Beta Tau; and (4) defamation against Calder and the House Corporation. The Defendants denied Meyer's claims and raised eighteen affirmative defenses. Eventually, the trial court granted the Defendants' motion that Meyer's personal

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injury and negligence claims be tried separately from his defamation claims.

[¶16] On April 10, 2013, Sigma Pi, Beta Tau, and the House Corporation moved for summary judgment on the negligence claims, and Calder and the House Corporation moved for summary judgment on the defamation claims. Following extensive briefing and a hearing, the trial court granted summary judgment in favor of the Defendants on ...


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