Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Roommate drama lands Penn State sorority sisters in federal court

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."

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 a typical drama between young women navigating life 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, a rising senior and 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 her being placed on academic probation and threatened with expulsion.

The Brownsteins' primary complaints?

Lader allegedly played music too loud in the Barcelona apartment that the girls shared during a study-abroad trip earlier this year, brought a man 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, is CEO of the Center City 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 all of 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. "Similarly, the extent to which Marc A. Brownstein is willing to pervert his power and influence as a large-money Penn State donor for the purpose of intentionally harming Rachel is equally disturbing."

Penn State declined to comment on the disciplinary proceedings, citing the ongoing legal matter.

The Brownstein family referred all requests for comment to its lawyer, Paul Rosen, who dismissed the allegations 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. "Penn State is under a microscope and it's been under a microscope since [the sex abuse scandal involving Jerry] Sandusky. It would be insane for anyone with the transparency going on in that school to make such an accusation."

By all accounts, the trouble began in Barcelona, where the two Alpha Sigma Alpha sisters decided to share an apartment during their study-abroad trip last semester.

Brownstein's story is detailed in an eight-page memo penned by her mother, Amy, filed with Penn State and included with Lader's filings with the court this week.

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, then insisted during a trip to Prague on bringing a man back to their shared hotel room, forcing Brownstein to find other accommodations for the night.

"In the sorority, it is generally understood that you do not cross Rachel Lader - better to pretend to be her friend, than be her enemy," Amy Brownstein wrote. "The other girls were frankly scared of Rachel."

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 man 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 pulling her fair share of the housework around the apartment.

"The alleged conduct complained of by Molly Brownstein is without any merit and is nothing more than slander and harassment by [her] and her mother to have me thrown out of school," Lader wrote to the school this year.

Penn State got involved at the Brownsteins' request in March, launching a disciplinary investigation against Lader while both women were attending school in Spain.

Lader contends in her lawsuit that the process was stacked against her from the start, and that the school's investigators discounted any evidence she provided and relied primarily on the Brownsteins' account.

At one point, a school administrator contacted Lader and proposed a deal to drop the disciplinary proceedings. Before leaving for Spain, Lader and Brownstein had signed a lease to live together at an off-campus apartment in State College this fall.

According to emails filed with the suit, the school proposed that if Lader would break the lease and move out, Penn State would drop its probe.

Lader calls the proposed deal extortion. She refused, and days later received a letter saying she had been charged with harassment, a violation of the student code of conduct.

Lader's lawyers maintain that their client agreed to sign the resolution and accept the punishment of a semester of academic probation just to put the matter behind her, but only on the condition that the outcome of the investigation be kept private from the Brownsteins. But, the lawsuit states, the Brownsteins found out within minutes.

U.S. District Judge Timothy Savage has not set a date for a hearing on the suit.

And with move-in day approaching on their new apartment this weekend, neither woman has shown an intention to back down on the issue of breaking the lease.

Unless someone bends, these two scrapping sorority sisters again could be sharing living quarters as well as opposite sides of a courtroom.