Client Expelled from College for Cheating is Reinstated
We’ve all heard the well-worn phrase “thinking outside the box,” but nowhere is that concept truer than in the practice of law. Clients seek help with a variety of legal problems, and frequently there appears to be an obvious way to proceed. Creative solutions, however, can sometimes present a better way.
In a recent case, our client was a student at a local university who had been wrongly expelled after being accused of plagiarizing another student’s paper. Although the two students’ papers were virtually identical, it was clear that the university had made a mistake. Our client was the victim of plagiarism; our client had not copied the paper, rather, the other student had copied our client’s paper. However, the university refused to modify its decision. Our client was devastated, his education derailed, and his future uncertain. The “obvious” solution to the client’s problem would have been bringing suit against the university directly, alleging that their judicial proceedings violated due process. This path, however, presented serious obstacles, including the university’s sovereign immunity as an arm of the state, its essentially unlimited resources to defend such an action, and the high burden of proof required to prevail in a due process claim. We needed a way to show the university that they had made the wrong decision without taking them on in court.
We elected instead to sue the student whose similar work had caused our client’s expulsion. Our goal was not only to prove that she had stolen our client’s final paper – and thus clear our client’s name – but also to demonstrate that the university’s decision was therefore simply wrong and unfair. We believed and were confident that if the university heard that a court of law found the exact opposite result, the administration would then feel pressure to reverse their decision. At trial, we were able to present overwhelming evidence that our client was innocent of any wrongdoing. After four days of trial, the court found that the other student had taken our client’s work, awarding our client compensation for the value of his paper as well as over $25,000 in punitive damages. Although the case is on appeal by the other student, after receiving a copy of the decision the university agreed to clear our client’s academic record and immediately reinstate him. Victory!
This case exemplifies the need for creative thinking when solving legal problems – something we keep in mind with every client we serve. Each case presents unique challenges, and in law, the shortest distance between two points is not always a straight line.