Finding that a student who was dismissed for plagiarism raised a viable due process claim, a federal district court in Nevada allowed the student’s lawsuit against a university to proceed.
In early 2010, Sujanie Gamage began working on the dissertation she needed to complete as a student in the Chemistry Ph.D program at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.
In February 2011, Gamage submitted a draft of the dissertation to an advisory committee. Upon review, a professor in the chemistry department accused Gamage of committing academic misconduct by including plagiarized text in her draft. In October 2011, the unviersity’s Academic Integrity Appeal Panel conducted a hearing to consider the charge. Gamage attended the hearing, but she later asserted that she was denied the opportunity to have an advisor assist her there.
Panel Upholds Charge
The panel determined that Gamage committed academic misconduct. It found that she did not avail herself of multiple opportunities to correct the plagiarism, and it noted that she admitted to making “mistakes” that she did not know how to correct. The panel recommended that Gamage be removed from the Ph.D. program, and its recommendation was accepted.
Gamage denied that she had committed academic misconduct. She further alleged that her right to due process was violated when she was denied permission to have an advisor assist her at the hearing. According to Gamage, the absence of an advisor prevented her from effectively representing herself.
Suit Raises Multiple Claims
In a lawsuit against the university and others, Gamage raised the following claims:
• breach of contract
• negligence/negligent hiring, training and supervision
• infliction of emotional distress
• injunctive and declaratory relief
• defamation, libel and slander, and
• violation of due process rights.
After the university removed the case from the state court where it was filed to a federal court, it filed a motion for judgment on the pleadings. In support of its application, the university argued that Gamage’s complaint was deficient because it did not specifically reference 42 U.S.C. § 1983, which is the procedural vehicle used by plaintiffs to allege constitutional claims.
The court focused its analysis on whether Gamage was required to specifically refer to Section 1983 in her complaint and whether she had otherwise adequately alleged a Section 1983 violation.
Specific Reference to Statute Not Required
First, the court concluded that Gamage was not required to specifically refer to Section 1983 in her complaint. It noted that the university had not provided authority to support the existence of such a requirement, and it added that its own research did not reveal any such authority. Therefore, the university’s motion could not be granted based on the complaint’s failure to include a specific reference to Section 1983.
Next, the court found that Gamage had adequately alleged a violation of her right to procedural due process. To plead a violation of her due process rights, Gamage had to sufficiently allege that she was deprived of a constitutionally protected life, liberty or property interest. She also had to allege that the university did
not provide constitutionally adequate process.
As to the first element, the court explained that in certain situations students have a property interest in their education that is protected by the Due Process Clause. In addition, the Due Process Clause bans arbitrary deprivations of liberty, including deprivations affecting a person’s “good name, reputation, honor or integrity.” Gamage claimed that the defendants were preventing her from returning to school and preventing her from being admitted to another school. As such, she adequately alleged a deprivation of her constitutionally protected property and liberty interests.
Allegations Were Sufficient
Gamage also sufficiently alleged that the procedures the school used to remove her from the Ph.D program were constitutionally inadequate. By alleging that the lack of an advisor prevented her from effectively representing herself at the disciplinary hearing, Gamage adequately asserted that the university’s procedures violated her constitutional rights.
Finally, the court determined that Gamage’s complaint sufficiently alleged that the defendants acted under color of state law. Gamage alleged that the defendants’ challenged actions resulted from a university policy that was implemented by individuals who were acting under the color of law. This allegation was sufficient to meet pleading requirements. The motion was denied.
Gamage v. State of Nevada, No. 2:12-cv-00290-GMN-VCF, 2013 WL 1182084 (D. Nev. 3/19/13).
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