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Student can’t sue Brown over suspension for cheating

quiet_green_-_brown_universityA Brown University student who was disciplined for cheating on a take-home exam could not bring contract and tort claims against the school for her punishment, the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals recently ruled.

The university’s Committee on the Academic Code suspended plaintiff “Jane Doe” after a teaching assistant noticed allegedly striking similarities between one of her mid-term essays and that of a classmate.

Alleging that Brown failed to provide certain procedural protections called for in the academic code, such as copies of the work in question and a list of faculty advisors for her to consult prior to the hearing, the plaintiff claimed Brown subjected her to a “deficient and biased process,” resulting in overly punitive sanctions that amounted to breach of contract and inflicted emotional distress.

The plaintiff further contended that the lighter penalty received by the classmate she allegedly cheated with, plus the fact that the professor allowed students to collaborate, demonstrated a violation of the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing.

But the 1st Circuit disagreed, affirming a U.S. District Court judge’s summary judgment for the university.

Addressing the contract claim, “none of Doe’s proffered alternative courses of action gives rise to disputed facts suggesting a link between Brown’s procedural failures and Doe’s alleged damages,” Judge Jeffrey R. Howard wrote for the court. “That is so because Doe’s admissions of the facts supporting the sanctions that she received predate the institution of any formal process against her.”

As to the bad-faith claim, even if the professor “explicitly allowed students to work in groups on the exam, there is no reasonable basis to conclude that when Doe submitted an answer nearly identical to [her classmate’s] without indicating that it was the result of collaboration, she did not commit a Code violation,” Howard continued, adding that, unlike her classmate, this was not Doe’s first offense.

The 19-page decision is Doe v. Brown University, et al.

Brown spokesperson Brian Clark said in a written statement that the university was pleased with the 1st Circuit’s decision.

Plaintiff’s counsel Andrew T. Miltenberg of New York said he and his client were disappointed and “actively considering” further options.

Code violation

Doe enrolled at Brown in fall 2010 and graduated in spring 2014.

During the fall of her senior year, she enrolled in a public health course taught by professor Melissa Clark, one of the defendants.

The course included a mid-term exam that consisted of an in-class multiple-choice component and a four-question take-home essay.

While grading the take-home exams, a teaching assistant noticed that Doe’s response to the fourth question was remarkably similar to that of a classmate, “T.L.”

The assistant alerted both Doe and Clark. According to Doe, she “readily admitted” in a meeting with Clark the next day that she and other students, including T.L., had collaborated on the exam.

Doe also apparently explained to Clark that a majority of students in the class worked on the exam in groups and asserted that the collaboration was in line with Clark’s encouragement of collaboration and group discussion.

In a subsequent meeting with defendant Christopher Dennis, a deputy dean, Doe again acknowledged collaborating with T.L.

That December, Brown assigned the matter for a hearing with the committee, before which Doe submitted a written statement acknowledging, after comparing her exam with T.L.’s, that there were “similarities between the two” and that it was due to late-night fatigue.

Doe further explained that she was struggling to come up with “innovative ideas” for Question 4, used some of T.L.’s suggestions, and that when T.L. was explaining them to her, she “blurred” whose thoughts were whose. She also asked that the committee forgive her for her “mistake.”

The plaintiff did not call any witnesses at the hearing, opting instead to admit to and apologize for relying on T.L. Neither Clark nor T.L. appeared as witnesses against her.

The committee concluded that her “unauthorized use of the work of another” violated Brown’s academic code and — after considering that Doe had been disciplined a year earlier for plagiarizing portions of her final projects for two other courses — ordered a one-semester suspension; notations on her transcript about her suspension; notification of her parents; and the denial of future institutional letters of support absent a discussion of her offense in such letters.

Doe appealed the decision to defendant Margaret Klawunn, Brown’s vice president of campus life and student services, who affirmed. The plaintiff then transferred to another school for her final semester and, after completing her remaining credits there, graduated from Brown with her class.

In June 2015, Doe sued the defendants in U.S. District Court in Rhode Island, bringing an assortment of tort and contract claims centered on a theory that Brown’s disciplinary process was deficient and biased when compared to the procedures outlined in the academic code. Doe further asserted that Brown imposed an overly punitive sanction.

Judge John J. McConnell Jr. granted summary judgment to the defendants on claims alleging breach of contract, bad faith, negligence, emotional distress and tortious interference. The plaintiff appealed.

Judgment affirmed

The 1st Circuit rejected Doe’s argument that because her complaint detailed various ways Brown violated the academic code in handling her case, McConnell erred in granting summary judgment on her breach of contract claims.

Specifically, Doe pointed to Brown’s alleged failure to provide her with copies of the work in question, a list of faculty advisors to consult prior to the hearing, or notice of the charges against her while also denying her the right to present witnesses and to cross-examine witnesses against her.

“These assertions do not withstand close scrutiny,” Howard said. “For starters, the Code does not mandate that Brown supply an accused student with copies of the exam in question. (Even so, Doe did, in fact, review copies of her own exam, as well as those of some of her fellow students before her disciplinary hearing.)”

And while the code allows a student to offer evidence and witnesses in her support, “Doe offers no arguments to explain how, if at all, Brown precluded her from satisfying this burden,” Howard continued. “There is no evidence that Doe was prevented from calling any witnesses, and the University did not call any witnesses itself.”

Meanwhile, though the code requires Brown to present accused students with a list of potential advisors and notify them of the charges, “we struggle to see the causal connection between those breaches and Doe’s alleged damages, which include the academic sanctions against her,” the judge wrote. “This is because Doe herself, on multiple occasions, admitted to facts giving rise to a Code violation.”

The 1st Circuit also rejected Doe’s argument that her allegations of selective enforcement of the academic code amounted to arbitrary, bad-faith behavior that violated the implied covenant.

“[Doe] offered no evidence of this, and the record reveals that indeed, one other student — T.L. — was sanctioned for Code violations on the same exam,” Howard observed.

The court was similarly unpersuaded by Doe’s assertions that because two of the faculty members on the panel that judged her first violation were also on the panel that judged the more recent violation, bias infected her hearing and punishment.

“The Code … does not prohibit such Committee-member overlap,” Howard said, also noting that panel members do not hear of prior offenses until they have made their decision on the current one.

Finally, the court pointed out that while T.L. did receive a lesser sanction, it was her first offense, which was not the case for Doe.

Accordingly, the 1st Circuit concluded, McConnell’s summary judgment should be affirmed.

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