Student sues Rutgers over grade dispute
Published in the Home News Tribune 10/17/03
By SARAH GREENBLATT
RUTGERS UNIVERSITY: A Rutgers student has filed a lawsuit claiming professors falsely accused him of plagiarism and that administrators refused to reinstate his grades after a disciplinary panel found him innocent.
The complaint, which was transferred to U.S. District Court after being filed in state Superior Court, accuses Rutgers of breach of contract and violating the student’s right to due process.
Rutgers violated its own procedures for convening student disciplinary hearings, and officials disregarded the unanimous finding of a university hearing board appointed to review the matter, according to the suit.
Defendants include Rutgers President Richard L. McCormick, the boards of governors and trustees, Vice President of Student Affairs Emmet Dennis, Rutgers-Camden Provost Roger Dennis, College of Nursing Dean Felissa Lashley, professor Nancy Redeker and clinical instructor Connie Kartoz.
The student, identified in the complaint by the initials M.Z. to protect the privacy of his academic records, was two courses away from earning a master’s degree at the Graduate Program of Nursing in Camden in May 2002 when he faced plagiarism charges by a professor.
A practicing nurse and police officer from Willingboro, M.Z. had earned his bachelor’s degree in nursing at Rutgers in 2000 — garnering a 3.5 grade-point-average — and had accrued a 3.75 average in his work toward a master’s degree.
On May 1, 2002, Kartoz accused M.Z. of plagiarism, based on his work in theory and practice courses, according to the complaint.
After conducting a preliminary hearing one week later that upheld Kartoz’s charge, Rutgers officials declined to convene a formal hearing on the matter until January 2003, the complaint said.
While the university’s code of conduct permits students facing disciplinary hearings to be represented by a campus advisor, most of the designated advisors said they were too busy or otherwise unavailable to help M.Z., the complaint contends.
The suit claims M.Z. was obliged to defend himself in the hearing, accompanied by an attorney who was not permitted to speak and a campus advisor who lacked time to prepare for the hearing and agreed only to observe the proceedings.
The university did not provide M.Z. with documentation of its charges as it is required to do prior to the hearing, the suit contends.
Despite the adverse conditions, it took a university-appointed board of two students and a professor just 10 minutes to conclude that M.Z.’s accusers had failed to prove that he intentionally committed plagiarism, according to the complaint.
When M.Z. sought to have passing grades reinstated and to receive his master’s degree, the university responded that he would receive a failing grade due to plagiarism.
“They failed to follow the holding of their own hearing board’s decision,” said attorney Jamie Epstein, who is representing M.Z.
Denise Lanuto, an attorney representing Rutgers in the case, declined to comment.
Rutgers spokeswoman Sandy Lanman said campus officials could not comment on the case but that a student who is found through a disciplinary proceeding not to have committed plagiarism would still have to appeal his grade, under the university code of conduct.
Epstein said students should learn from M.Z.’s experience.
“This is a warning to any university student as to their illusion that a university will follow their own rules when there’s a disciplinary hearing,” Epstein said. “It clearly shows that they won’t.”
The lawsuit seeks to force Rutgers to confer a master’s degree in nursing upon M.Z. and pay damages.
Sarah Greenblatt: (732) 565-7205; firstname.lastname@example.org