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University of Iowa frat sex assault case set for trial in July
FIJI accused of fostering ‘a culture of alcohol abuse, underage alcohol consumption and sexual harassment’
IOWA CITY — A lawsuit alleging alcohol- and drug-assisted sexual violence and “malicious and intentional circulation” of photos and videos at the Phi Gamma Delta fraternity is headed for trial in July.
The lawsuit, filed Oct. 26, 2021, by University of Iowa student Makena Solberg, accuses former UI students Carson Steffen and Jacob Meloan — former members of Phi Gamma Delta, or FIJI — of sexually assaulting her during a “sanctioned Iowa FIJI fraternity event” at the house, 303 Ellis Ave., on Sept. 4-5, 2020.
In the lawsuit, Solberg alleges the men drugged her, isolated her in a room in the fraternity house, sexually assaulted her and recorded it. Her lawsuit accuses them of then sharing the photos or video with FIJI brothers and members of the public via a group chat — images that eventually got back to her.
Although Solberg said she reported the incident to police, officers didn’t immediately file charges — compelling Solberg to go public and incite widespread protests across the UI campus in the fall 2021 semester.
The protests of thousands caused major damage to the FIJI house — including broken windows, spray paint and overturned cars. They also precipitated police action, with Iowa City officers arresting Steffen in December 2021 — 15 months after the alleged assault — on a first-degree harassment charge.
That case was paused in January, pending the outcome of the civil trial, scheduled for July 11.
In denying the accusations against him, Steffen in court filings made several counter allegations against Solberg — including that she consented to sexual activity, defamed him with false accusations and exposed him to “public hatred and contempt.”
That, he said, has injured his reputation and future earning capacity and caused him near and future mental suffering.
In January, Solberg sought to up the number of defendants she’s suing from four to six — increasing the count of fraternity-related entities from two to four. In court filings, Solberg argued the fraternity failed to supervise members, protect guests at the house and aided the men in their actions.
“Plaintiff … seeks to allege that the entities fostered and allowed to exist a culture of alcohol abuse, underage alcohol consumption, and sexual harassment that created a dangerous space for invited guests,” according to court documents.
In backing her request to increase the number of fraternity-related defendants, Solberg told the court she’s uncovered evidence showing “the local fraternity chapter itself had secret social media groups that coordinated the purchase of large quantities of alcohol to be shared and consumed by underage members of the fraternity; that multiple members of the fraternity had forged or falsely created state driver’s licenses; and that members of the fraternity were engaged in the purchase and resale of vaping cartridges.”
In fighting Solberg’s request to up the number of defendants, attorneys for the fraternity argued the entities are independent and separate from the already-named defendants and they didn’t receive sufficient notice of a coming claim, among other things.
“Defendants believe plaintiff is attempting an end-run to interject new theories of liability,” according to court documents.
District Court Judge Kevin McKeever on Feb. 25 disagreed, allowing Solberg to expand her named defendants.
“It should not come as a complete surprise to either of the proposed new parties that they would be brought into the case,” McKeever wrote. “As to the new allegations … plaintiff has specified that discovery has shown that the Phi Gamma Delta chapter at the University of Iowa is supported, run and maintained by a series of different formal and informal entities for the purpose of isolating assets and compartmentalizing responsibility if something goes wrong in the local chapter.”
Vanessa Miller covers higher education for The Gazette.
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