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[U] Rho Chapter of Chi Phi Fraternity v. Lafayette College

Superior Court of Pennsylvania

February 11, 2014

RHO CHAPTER OF THE CHI PHI FRATERNITY, Appellant
v.
LAFAYETTE COLLEGE, Appellant

NON-PRECEDENTIAL DECISION

Appeal from the Order entered on September 9, 2012 in the Court of Common Pleas of Northampton County, Civil Division, No. C-48CV-2011-10433g

BEFORE: FORD ELLIOTT, P.J.E., WECHT and MUSMANNO, JJ.

MEMORANDUM

MUSMANNO, J.

Rho Chapter of the Chi Phi Fraternity ("Rho Chapter") appeals from the Order granting Lafayette College ("Lafayette") the right to use and occupy Vallamont, a fraternity house on Lafayette's campus. We affirm.

The trial court has set for the relevant underlying facts in its Opinion. See Trial Court Opinion, 9/12/12, at 1-9. We adopt the trial court's recitation for the purpose of this appeal. See id.

Rho Chapter and Lafayette proceeded to a non-jury trial. After hearing the evidence, the trial court ruled that Rho Chapter had become inactive, thereby entitling Lafayette, pursuant to contracts entered into by the parties, to use and occupy Vallamont until Rho Chapter is revived. Rho Chapter filed a Motion for post-trial relief, which was denied by the trial court. Rho Chapter filed a timely Notice of appeal.

On appeal, Rho Chapter raises the following question for our review:

[Whether] the trial court err[ed] as a matter of law and abuse[d] its discretion in finding that [] Rho Chapter [] was inactive, thereby permitting Lafayette [] to wrongly retain possession of Vallamont [] in violation of the explicit terms of the 1909, 2006 and 2010 agreements?

Brief for Appellant at 4 (some capitalization omitted).

Our standard of review in a non-jury trial requires us to determine whether the findings of the trial court are supported by competent evidence, and whether the trial judge committed error in the application of law. See Stonehedge Square Ltd. P'ship v. Movie Merchants, Inc., 685 A.2d 109, 122 (Pa.Super. 1996), aff'd, 715 A.2d 1082 (Pa. 1998). The findings of the trial judge in a non-jury case must be given the same weight and effect on appeal as a verdict of a jury, and will not be disturbed absent an error of law or abuse of discretion. Stonehedge Square Ltd. P'ship, 685 A.2d at 122. The interpretation of the terms of a contract is a question of law for which our standard of review is de novo, and our scope of review is plenary. McMullen v. Kutz, 985 A.2d 769, 773 (Pa. 2009).

Here, Rho Chapter contends that the trial court incorrectly determined that the term "inactive" in the 1909 agreement was ambiguous, and thereafter improperly considered evidence that came into existence one hundred years after the contract was executed to ascertain the intent of the parties. Brief for Appellant at 20, 23-24. Rho Chapter further contends that the trial court should have applied the rule of contra proferentem to construe the term "inactive" in favor of Rho Chapter, as the non-drafter of the 1909 agreement, to determine that Rho Chapter is not "inactive." Id. at 24-25. Rho Chapter also claims that, despite its temporary ban from undergraduate activity at Lafayette for a four-year period as a sanction for violation of Lafayette's code of conduct, it was not "inactive" because its undergraduate and post-graduate alumni remained active within the fraternity structure at Lafayette.[1] Id. at 25-27. Rho Chapter further contends that the trial court ignored the specific mandates of the 2006 and 2010 agreements, each of which required that Vallamont be returned to Rho Chapter upon the expiration of the contract. Id. at 28, 33; Reply Brief for Appellant at 1-6. Additionally, Rho Chapter claims that the trial court sanctioned the improper conduct of Lafayette in refusing to review Rho Chapter's application for recolonization, in violation of the 2010 agreement. Brief for Appellant at 32-33; Reply Brief for Appellant at 10-11.

Here, the trial court thoroughly addressed Rho Chapter's claims and concluded that they are without merit. See Trial Court Opinion, 9/12/12, at 9-20. As noted by the trial court, despite the execution of the 2006 and 2010 agreements, the 1909 agreement, which granted Lafayette the right to use and occupy Vallamont if Rho Chapter became inactive, remained in full force and effect. Id. at 15. We adopt the trial court's sound reasoning for the purpose of this appeal. See. id. at 9-20. Accordingly, we conclude that the trial court's findings are supported by competent evidence, and the trial court did not commit any error in the application of law.

Order affirmed.

Judgment Entered.


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