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Former San Diego State frat member sues university over hazing allegations

A flag is affixed to a pole at San Diego State.
A San Diego State graduate filed a lawsuit saying the university wrongly accused him of hazing while he was a member of Phi Gamma Delta.
(Howard Lipin / San Diego Union-Tribune )

A San Diego State University graduate filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in San Diego that claims the school wrongly accused him of engaging in hazing while he was a member of Phi Gamma Delta, a controversial fraternity that was shut down last year.

The California State University system also is named as a defendant in the lawsuit, which was filed Dec. 28 on behalf of John Lema, who graduated from San Diego State in May.

The lawsuit partly focuses on the 2019-20 academic year, when Lema was a member of Phi Gamma Delta and the fraternity was in turmoil following the death of one of its pledges, freshman Dylan Hernandez.

In November 2019, Hernandez became inebriated at one of the fraternity’s events, according to campus police. Investigators estimated that his blood-alcohol level was about 0.23 when he left the party. A person cannot lawfully operate a motor vehicle with a blood-alcohol content of 0.08 or higher.

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Hernandez made it back to his campus dorm and climbed into the top rack of his bunk bed. He later fell out of the bunk and struck his head, suffering a fatal injury.

Dylan Hernandez, 19, was hospitalized after allegedly attending a Phi Gamma Delta event. SDSU president urges those with information to come forward.

The university launched a broad investigation of the fraternity’s activities and found that Phi Gamma Delta was in violation of “Aiding and Abetting, Alcohol, Hazing or Conspiracy to Haze, Health and Safety, Illegal Drugs, and Violations of the Student Organization Conduct Procedures,” and expelled the fraternity from campus life for 10 years.

Phi Gamma Delta’s international headquarters announced at roughly the same time that it had indefinitely suspended the fraternity’s charter.

The lawsuit says that Lema received an email from SDSU in July 2020 that says, “Reportedly, during the 2018-2019 and 2019-2020 academic years, you engaged in and conspired to engage in hazing activities that endangered the health and safety of California State University students.”

“In addition, reportedly, you provided alcohol to minors, physically assaulted members of the campus community, interfered with the orderly progress of a student discipline proceeding, attempted to influence the impartiality of any participant in a student discipline matter, and encouraged, permitted or assisted another to do any act that could subject them to discipline.”

Lema said that he did not violate any of the university’s rules and had little involvement with the fraternity, even though he was a member. But San Diego State placed a hold on Lema’s graduation, the lawsuit alleges.

He retained an attorney the following month and began contesting the allegations. The lawsuit says that San Diego State proposed a settlement agreement on the disciplinary charges in November. The proposed agreement said Lema had done everything from compel others to consume alcohol to bullying and paddling people.

The “settlement agreement contained not a single piece of documentary evidence that corroborates Lema’s responsibility for them,” the lawsuit said.

The suit also said the agreement called for Lema to be suspended from SDSU until November 4, 2022 — a sanction that would appear on his academic transcript. He also would have had to participate in, and pay for, counseling.

The lawsuit further says, “After substantial pressure was applied on SDSU by the undersigned counsel (Keith Altman), all disciplinary proceedings against Lema were dropped, and [he] was able to graduate in May of 2021.”

“However, the ordeal inflicted on Lema by the defendants caused Lema immense emotional suffering and hardship. Defendants actions .... also forced Lema to expend a significant amount of money in attorney’s fees to obtain the degree for which he had worked so hard.”

Lema’s attorney, Keith Altman of Farmington Hills, Mich., could not be reached for comment.

The tragedy occurred during homecoming weekend.

In a statement to the Union-Tribune, the university said, “As this situation involves active litigation, SDSU cannot speak to the case or any specific detail.”

The school added that, “students alleged to have violated SDSU’s Student Code of Conduct are fully afforded due process, which includes receiving notice of alleged violations and several opportunities to respond, request or provide information, among additional rights.

“Upon receipt of an allegation, all students are presumed not responsible for violating the Student Code of Conduct, and findings of responsibility are only issued when a standard of the preponderance of evidence is met after a thorough investigation.”

A official with the Cal State system on Tuesday deferred to San Diego State for comments on the matter.


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