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Resolution Reached in Alumni Association Lawsuit

by on April 29, 2015 12:49 PM

The lawsuit between James Smith and the Penn State Alumni Association has come to a tentative resolution. 

In a hearing in Centre County Court on Wednesday, both sides of the suit agreed to an order proposed by Smith’s attorneys. All that’s left is for the two sides to hammer out some details about the exact wording and submit the order to Centre County President Judge Thomas Kistler to sign.

“We were certainly hoping to be able to reach an understanding today,” Alumni Association Executive Director Roger Williams says. “This lawsuit gets down to the fundamental ability of a Pennsylvania nonprofit corporation to govern itself.”

Smith filed his lawsuit against the alumni association last month, seeking to have his name and Elizabeth Morgan’s name added to the ballot for the upcoming May elections to the alumni council, which is association’s governing body.

Smith alleges that he and Morgan were wrongly denied ballot access, although the alumni association agreed to add both names to the ballot before Wednesday’s hearing. However, that concession wasn’t enough to keep the lawsuit from heading to court.

Rodney Beard, an attorney for Smith, said at the hearing that adding Smith’s name to the ballot would not keep the alumni association from “further disparaging” Smith between now and the elections.

Beard proposed an order stipulating that the alumni association will not interfere with Smith’s participation in the election, refrain from further disparaging Smith, and accurately report and maintain complete records of the election results.

Michael O’Mara, an attorney for the alumni association, said it was “simply incorrect” to suggest that the association had disparaged Smith. With the exception of the wording suggesting they had badmouthed Smith in the past, O’Mara did not object to Beard’s proposed order.

But even though both sides could agree on that order, not everything was resolved.

After Smith filed his lawsuit, the alumni association approved a provision to its bylaws that says anyone who is actively suing the university can’t be a member of alumni council. Smith took issue with that new rule, but Kistler said that Wednesday’s hearing was neither the time nor place to debate that.

“You can challenge the bylaws all you want, but not in this action,” Kistler said. “This action was to get you on the ballot, and that’s been done.”

Wednesday’s hearing came on the heels of a hearing in very similar litigation that was held in front of Kistler on Tuesday. Four alumni-elected Penn State trustees – Anthony Lubrano, Alice Pope, Ted Brown and Alice – are also suing the alumni association to have their names added to the alumni council ballot.

Unlike Smith’s lawsuit, the alumni association has not conceded its point and has not added the trustees’ names to the ballot. The association has previously argued that university trustees could exert more influence than the average alumni council member, and that having sitting trustees on the alumni council would compromise the alumni association’s independence from the university.

Beard, who also represents the trustees' action against the alumni association, says this “categorical exclusion of trustees” was one of the main focuses of Tuesday's hearing. Beard says that both sides of that lawsuit must submit written arguments to the court by Monday, and that Kistler will make a ruling shortly thereafter.

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Michael Martin Garrett is a reporter and editor for StateCollege.com who covers local government, the courts, the arts and writes the Keeping the Faith column. He's a Penn State alumnus, a published poet and the bassist in a local indie rock band.
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