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Doe v. Brown University

United States District Court, D. Rhode Island

June 27, 2016

JANE DOE, Plaintiff,
v.
BROWN UNIVERSITY, et al. Defendants.

          Jane Doe, Plaintiff, represented by Andrew T. Miltenberg, Nesenoff & Miltenberg LLP, pro hac vice, Tara J. Novack, Nesenoff & Miltenberg LLP, pro hac vice & Samuel D. Zurier, Oliverio & Marcaccio, LLP.

          Brown University, Defendant, represented by Beverly E. Ledbetter, Brown University & Thomas R. Bender, Office of General Counsel, Brown University.

          Melissa Clark, Defendant, represented by Beverly E. Ledbetter, Brown University & Thomas R. Bender, Office of General Counsel, Brown University.

          Margaret Klawunn, Defendant, represented by Beverly E. Ledbetter, Brown University & Thomas R. Bender, Office of General Counsel, Brown University.

          Christopher Dennis, Defendant, represented by Beverly E. Ledbetter, Brown University & Thomas R. Bender, Office of General Counsel, Brown University.

          MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

          JOHN J. McCONNELL, Jr., District Judge.

         Jane Doe, a senior at Brown University, was caught cheating on a take-home exam and admitted as much in a letter to the University's Academic Code Committee. Applying the Academic Code, Brown conducted a hearing and imposed a punishment that was harsher than Jane Doe likely expected, because this turned out to be her second incident of plagiarism in her four years on campus. Despite this history of academic dishonesty, the University permitted Jane Doe to graduate on time with a Brown University degree. Rather than move on from this sad history in her academic career, Jane Doe brought suit alleging various contract and tort claims against the University and its employees about the process and discipline that Brown administered. This Court finds that Brown did not breach its contract with Jane Doe, and that Jane Doe has established no other actionable claims against the University or its employees. The Court therefore grants summary judgment for the Defendants.

         FACTS

         The facts relevant to resolving this legal matter are not in dispute.

         Brown University's Academic Code is contained in a document entitled "Academic & Student Conduct Codes, " which Brown provided to Jane Doe when she accepted the University's offer of admission. ECF No. 1-1; ECF No. 1 at 5-6 ¶ 28. The Academic Code is a concise portion of that document, which lists academic offenses, procedures for Academic Code hearings, and penalties for violating the Code.[1] ECF No. 1-1 at 2.

         The introductory section of the Academic Code, entitled "Basic Policy, " states:

Academic achievement is evaluated on the basis of work that a student produces independently. A student who obtains credit for work, words, or ideas that are not the products of his or her own effort is dishonest and in violation of Brown's Academic Code.
*****
A student's name on any exercise... is regarded as assurance that the exercise is the result of the student's own thoughts and study, stated in his or her own words, and produced without assistance, except as quotation marks, references, and footnotes acknowledge the use of printed sources or other outside help. In some instances an instructor or department may authorize students to work jointly in solving problems or completing projects; such efforts must be clearly marked as the results of collaboration. Where collaboration is authorized, students should be very clear as to which parts of any assignment must be performed independently.
*****
If a student is in doubt about work in a particular course, he or she should consult the instructor of the course or one of the academic deans in his or her appropriate division so as to avoid the charge of academic dishonesty.

         ECF No. 1-1 at 6-7.

         The section labeled "Offenses Against the Academic Code" contains the following relevant provisions:

          Use of Sources

*****
Word-for-word inclusion of any part of someone else's written or oral sentence, even if only a phrase or sentence, requires citation in quotation marks and use of the appropriate conventions for attribution.... Paraphrasing or summarizing the contents of another's work is not dishonest if the source or sources are clearly identified... but such paraphrasing does not constitute independent work and may be rejected by the instructor. Students who have questions about accurate and proper citation methods are expected to consult reference guides as well as course instructors.
*****

Examinations, Quizzes, and Tests

In writing examinations and quizzes, the student is required to respond entirely on the basis of his or her own memory and capacity, without any assistance whatsoever except such as is specifically authorized by the instructor.
Cheating on examinations and quizzes can take the forms listed below. The list is not exhaustive.
• Engaging in other actions that undermine equity and reduce the objectivity of evaluation of student work
*****
• Copying other students' work during an examination
• Engaging in collaboration or unauthorized assistance on take-home examinations or assignments

         ECF No. 1-1 at 7-8.

         Next, the Academic Code explains the "Procedures for Academic Code Hearings":

All cases of suspected academic dishonesty in the College... shall be referred to the Case Administrator of the Academic Code, who shall be an academic dean appointed by the Dean of the College. Faculty and students are urged to report their suspicions so that all members of the University community will feel equally responsible for academic honesty, and so that repeat offenders may be identified.
The person alleging a violation of the Code shall provide copies of the work in question and describe in an accompanying narrative the nature of the alleged violation. In cases of plagiarism, the person making the charge shall provide copies of original sources, if available, marking plagiarized phrases, sentences, and/or paragraphs, and shall indicate borrowings in the text of the accused and in original sources. In the case of an examination, the person making the charge shall provide copies of the examination in question, indicate specifically the grounds for the charge, and explain his or her process of discovery. Other alleged offenses against the Academic Code shall be documented with equal thoroughness and in equal detail.
All cases of suspected academic dishonesty will be screened by the Case Administrator, in consultation with faculty involved in the case and expert witnesses if needed. The Case Administrator determines whether or not a case requires a formal hearing
If, after screening, the Case Administrator decides that a formal hearing is warranted, he or she shall, as soon as possible, notify the accused student of the specific charge(s) of dishonesty, the time and place of the hearing, the nature of the evidence that will be presented against the student, and the range of penalties that may be imposed if the Committee finds that academic dishonesty occurred.
*****

Student Rights

The accused student is permitted to consult a Brown faculty or administrative advisor on matters of preparation for the hearing, hearing procedures, and possible outcomes. The Case Administrator will provide the accused student with a list of persons from within the University community who, by prior experience and interest, can provide knowledgeable advice. The advisor is not permitted to attend the academic code hearing except as a possible witness.
The accused student has the right to dispute the evidence against him or her and the right to present evidence and witnesses of his or her own to support his or her case, to examine any witnesses against him or her, and to avoid self-incrimination by declining to answer questions or by declining to participate in the proceedings in whole or in part. Declining to participate in an Academic Code hearing does not affect the validity of the Committee's deliberations, nor does it affect the authority of the University or its representatives to impose penalties if dishonesty is found to have occurred.

Standing Committee on the Academic Code

Hearings, deliberations, and decisions on penalties, culpability, or innocence shall be made by a Standing Committee on the Academic Code, consisting of a dean from the accused student's college/school (but not the Case Administrator), plus two faculty members to be chosen from a standing pool of six....
*****
The Academic Code Committee's procedures are administrative in nature and concern internal University affairs, accordingly, the deliberation of the Standing Committee need not be subject to formal rules of civil procedure or evidence. The meetings/hearings need not be open to the public, the accused does not have a right to legal counsel at the meetings/hearings, nor shall legal counsel be part of the process.

Committee Findings

If an undergraduate student is determined to be in violation of the Academic Code, the Standing Committee shall determine an appropriate sanction, which will be conveyed to the student in a letter from the Committee. The student will be informed in the letter that he or she has the right to appeal any decisions by the Academic Code Committee to the Dean of the College....

Appeals Process

An undergraduate student who has been found in violation of the Academic Code may appeal the Committee's ruling to the Dean of the College.... The student's appeal of the Committee's decision must be in writing and shall include all materials the appellant considers relevant, including a narrative clearly outlining the grounds of appeal.
Normally, appeals will be considered only when new information that was not reasonably available at the time of the hearing becomes available or when an allegation of substantial procedural error on the part of the University or the Academic Code Committee is made....

Id. at 9-13.

         Finally, the Code also lists the "Penalties for Violating the Academic Code":

The Standing Committee on the Academic Code is authorized to enact any penalty it judges appropriate for a violation of the code. The most common penalties assessed by the ...

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