A federal appeals court said Tuesday the parents of an LSU freshman who died in a hazing ritual 2½ years ago can pursue claims that the university disciplines its fraternities and sororities differently and that male students who enter Greek life face a greater risk of injury than females.

LSU claimed sovereign immunity and sought to nullify a lawsuit filed by Stephen and Rae Ann Gruver, whose son Max died weeks after he enrolled at LSU in 2017. The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans ruled that because LSU accepts federal funding, it had waived immunity from lawsuits that allege discrimination on the basis of sex.

The Gruvers' lawsuit claimed LSU violated portions of Title IX, a federal law that forbids intentional sex discrimination by educational institutions that receive federal funds. A three-judge panel at the 5th Circuit said every appeals court that has taken up an anti-discrimination case has found that accepting federal funds makes universities subject to Title IX lawsuits.

Chief U.S. District Judge Shelly Dick, of Baton Rouge, had sided with the Gruvers on that issue last summer, citing 5th Circuit precedent dating back two decades.

"We remain bound by our precedent: LSU has waived Eleventh Amendment immunity by accepting federal funds. Congress did not coerce it to do so," Circuit Judge Gregg Costa wrote for the panel. "LSU is free to avoid Title IX obligations by declining federal funds without threatening other state agencies' funding."

Gruver's parents filed their lawsuit in 2018 against the LSU Board of Supervisors, Phi Delta Theta, and current and former members of the fraternity. The suit seeks $25 million in damages.

In a statement released through one of their attorneys, Jonathon Fazzola, the Gruvers said Tuesday that "LSU was deliberately indifferent to fraternity hazing and the deadly risks facing Max Gruver."

"LSU's indifference was a cause of Max's death and this most recent court victory confirms that LSU must face justice in federal court for its failure to comply with Title IX," they added.

LSU did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The suit claims LSU engaged in a practice of discrimination by policing sorority hazing more strictly than fraternity hazing. The Gruvers argue that because that practice is grounded in outdated stereotypes of men, it is intentional discrimination that forces males to seek benefits of Greek Life with greater risk of injury.

LSU's lawyers argued to the 5th Circuit that Title IX forbids sexual harassment but "does not prohibit 'hazing' that does not constitute sexual harassment."

The Gruvers have said that winning their Title IX claim against LSU will ensure that universities use their power "to end hazing and save lives."

Max Gruver, of Roswell, Georgia, had been at LSU just a month when he died of alcohol poisoning and aspiration in what authorities have described as a hazing ritual — dubbed "Bible study" — at the Phi Delta Theta fraternity house.

Gruver and other Phi Delta Theta pledges were told to chug 190-proof liquor the night of Sept. 13, 2017, if they gave wrong answers to questions about the fraternity or could not recite the Greek alphabet.

Gruver died the next morning. His blood-alcohol level was 0.495%, which is more than six times the legal limit to drive in Louisiana. An autopsy also detected THC, the chemical found in marijuana, in his system.

Phi Delta Theta has been banned from LSU's campus until at least 2033 as a result of the investigation into the events leading to Gruver's death.

His death resulted in the arrest of 10 current or former LSU students. An East Baton Rouge Parish grand jury indicted four of them: Matthew Naquin for negligent homicide, and Sean-Paul Gott, Ryan Isto and Patrick Forde for misdemeanor hazing.

Naquin, 22, of Fair Oaks Ranch, Texas, was convicted last summer of negligent homicide and sentenced to 5 years in prison, with 2½ years of the time suspended. He also was put on probation for 3 years, fined $1,000 and ordered to perform 1,000 hours of community service.

Naquin began serving his sentence in January and was released from prison last month. He also was charged with obstruction of justice for allegedly deleting hundreds of files from his phone during the criminal probe and after a search warrant had been issued for the phone, but that charge was dismissed after he dropped his appeal.

Several witnesses testified at Naquin’s trial that he disliked Gruver, wanted him cut from the fraternity and played a central role in the ill-fated hazing.

Gott, 23, of Lafayette, and Isto, 21, of Butte, Montana, pleaded no contest to hazing in 2018 and were sentenced last year to 30 days in jail, the maximum allowed under Louisiana law at the time of Gruver's death. Isto, who was Naquin's roommate at LSU, and Gott testified for the prosecution at Naquin's trial.

Forde, 23, of Westwood, Massachusetts, also testified. Prosecutors decided not to prosecute him due to his early and extensive cooperation.

Naquin, Gott, Isto, Forde and other current and former Phi Delta Theta members were named as defendants in the Gruver suit, but court records show Naquin was dismissed from the case after a settlement was reached. The terms were not disclosed.

LSU has said the school has developed new policies since Gruver's death. The university also supported the Gruvers' efforts to criminalize hazing and ensure that there are harsher penalties for hazing in Louisiana.

Gov. John Bel Edwards signed into law in 2018 the Max Gruver Act and other anti-hazing bills intended to curb hazing and increase penalties. Gruver’s parents were instrumental in the passage of the act bearing his name.


Email Joe Gyan Jr. at jgyan@theadvocate.com.