A spat between sorority sister that started during a spring sojourn in Spain has escalated to involve college authorities, multiple lawyers and a federal judge.
PHILADELPHIA — Molly Brownstein, a Pennsylvania State University senior, and her family describe her roommate, Rachel Lader, as a classic mean girl: a “monster” and an “expert bully, with a Ph.D. in intimidation.”
Lader denies this and paints Brownstein as a coddled whiner, quick to turn to her parents to solve problems she created with her own standoffish behavior.
Such squabbling might normally be dismissed as typical drama between young women on their own for the first time. But this spat between sorority sisters, which started during a spring sojourn in Spain, has escalated to involve college authorities, multiple lawyers and a federal judge.
This week, Lader, an aspiring lawyer, filed a defamation and breach-of-contract lawsuit in federal court in Philadelphia alleging that Brownstein’s parents — donors to the university and active alumni — used their influence at the school to manipulate a baseless disciplinary proceeding against her that ended with Lader being placed on academic probation and threatened with expulsion.
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The Brownsteins’ primary complaints?
Lader allegedly played music too loud in the Barcelona apartment the girls shared during a study-abroad trip this year, brought a boy back to their hotel room in Prague, and once — in a fit of frustration over Brownstein’s purported slovenliness — dumped a colander filled with pasta on her roommate’s bed.
Brownstein — whose father, Marc Brownstein, is CEO of the Philadelphia ad agency the Brownstein Group — has maintained she was the victim of relentless bullying that brought her to contemplating suicide.
“Rachel bullied me to the point where I had to leave in the middle of the night in an area where people get stabbed outside my building,” she wrote in a memo filed with the university included in Lader’s lawsuit. “Whenever I think about it, it brings me to a full on terrible place and makes me completely depressed.”
Lader, in her court filings this week, balks at this, claiming she was the victim of a coordinated campaign to tarnish her academic record, leaving her a nervous wreck, suffering from maladies including migraines, anxiety and colitis, which prompted a five-day hospital stay last month.
Her lawsuit, which names the Brownstein family and Penn State as defendants, asks a judge to vacate her disciplinary record and award damages for defamation and inflicting emotional distress.
“This willingness of Penn State to acquiesce to the inappropriate and harmful demands of a large money donor shocks the conscience,” her lawyer, Maurice Mitts, wrote in court filings this week.
Penn State declined to comment on the disciplinary proceedings.
The Brownstein family referred all requests for comment to their lawyer, Paul Rosen, who dismissed accusations that his clients had any say in the disciplinary proceedings against Lader. “You’re going to make a federal case out of this, a dispute between two sorority sisters?” he asked.
By all accounts, the trouble began in Barcelona, where the two Alpha Sigma Alpha sisters shared an apartment during their study-abroad trip last semester.
Brownstein’s story is detailed in an eight-page memo penned by her mother, Amy Brownstein, filed with Penn State and included with Lader’s filings with the court.
The document, titled “A Mother’s Perspective,” details a string of slights that she says she observed from nearly 4,000 miles away.
She writes that Lader left her daughter behind on a planned trip to Copenhagen, actively sought to exclude her from conversation, and insisted during a trip to Prague on bringing a boy back to their shared hotel room, forcing Brownstein to find other accommodations for the night.
Lader disputes almost everything in the Brownsteins’ retelling and maintains that Brownstein hid in her room while she and their other roommates were socializing.
The boy she brought back to their hotel room, Lader says, was a high-school friend who had locked himself out of his apartment. Nothing romantic occurred between them, she claims, and he slept on the couch.
As for the pasta, Lader admits to putting a colander in her roommate’s bedsheets but insists it contained no noodles. Her act of protest, she maintains, was to draw attention to the fact that Brownstein wasn’t doing her fair share of the housework around the apartment.
Penn State got involved at the Brownsteins’ request in March, launching a disciplinary investigation against Lader while both women were attending school in Spain.
U.S. District Judge Timothy Savage has not set a date for a hearing on the suit.