Student Successfully Seeks Temporary Injunction Commanding Private University to Remove Plagiarism Violation and Failing Grade from Student's File Because School Failed to Adhere to Disciplinary Rules.

August 10, 2009
A.K. was a student at the University of Tampa, a private university located in Tampa, Florida. A.K. was enrolled in a criminology course taught by Professor Anthony LaRose. As a part of this course, A.K. was required to prepare a term paper, which she wrote discussing the Posse Comitatus Act and advocating the Act's abolishment. LaRose, who strongly disagreed with A.K.'s position on the Act, concluded that A.K.'s paper contained plagiarized material and graded the paper with an 'F'. LaRose then exercised his discretion to fail A.K. for the entire course.

As an example of A.K.'s alleged plagiarism, in her paper, she began a paragraph by writing, "[T]he Posse Comitatus Act is archaic and hamstrings effective use of federal assets in the War on Terror, illegal immigration and narcotics." One sentence later, A.K. wrote, "[t]he act has its loopholes for exceptions, 'except in such cases and under such circumstances as such employment of said force may be expressly authorized by the Constitution or by Act of Congress.' " LaRose believed that the lack of proper citation constituted plagiarism, despite the fact that A.K. had placed the cited text in quotation marks.

The University defines plagiarism as "[p]resenting words or ideas of another person as your own. The most common form of this is copying a direct quotation from a source and not crediting the author." The University's position is that the intent to plagiarize is not necessary to a determination that plagiarism occurred.

A.K. challenged LaRose's grade and conclusion that she plagiarized her term paper with the University's Academic Integrity Hearing Board. The University's rules provided that a student could attend the hearing with a member of the University community. One week in advance of A.K.'s scheduled hearing, she advised the University that she would be bringing her university community mentor, a University alumnus. On the day of the hearing, the University advised A.K. that her mentor was not allowed to attend the hearing because the University did not deem alumni to be members of the University community. The Hearing Board upheld LaRose's charge of plagiarism, but found that A.K. did not have any intent to plagiarize. A.K. next sought to appeal the Hearing Board's decision, but was told by the University that the Hearing Board's decision was final and non-appealable.

A.K. brought an action against the University and LaRose claiming that they unfairly accused her and found her to have committed plagiarism. A.K. sought a temporary injunction, which is a court order prohibiting an action by a party until a trial or further court action, commanding the University to remove the plagiarism violation and her failing grade from her student file. A.K. also sought a permanent injunction from the Court after a trial on the merits was held.

In Florida, a temporary injunction may be granted only if the requestor, or movant, establishes "(1) a likelihood of irreparable harm; (2) unavailability of an adequate legal remedy; (3) a substantial likelihood of succeeding on the merits; and (4) considerations of the public interest support the entry of the injunction." (Masters Freight Inc. v. Servco, Inc. (2005) 915 So.2d 666, 666.) After applying this four-pronged test, the trial court concluded that a temporary injunction was necessary. The trial court also determined that the University's rules provided students with the right to appeal the Hearing Board's decisions, a right which was denied to A.K. The University and LaRose appealed.

The Appellate Court reviewed the trial court's granting of the temporary restraining order under an abuse of discretion standard. The Court stated that a reasonable reading of the quoted passage in A.K.'s paper that did not include a proper citation lead to the conclusion that the quoted passage came directly from the language of the Act. The Court also found that the University's definition of plagiarism, coupled with the fact that the University did not require the intent to plagiarize in order to find that a student violated the academic code, effectively resulted in the faculty's unlimited discretion to determine whether a student plagiarized a paper. Although not explicitly discussed, the Court clearly disapproved of this unlimited discretion, which is consistent with the general requirement that student disciplinary decisions and procedures must be fundamentally fair.

The Court also noted the several procedural issues that plagued the proceedings between A.K. and the University, such as the denial of her appeal and the forbiddance of her bringing her community mentor. Finally, the Court also found that the record suggested that LaRose had publically belittled A.K. in front of the class, that LaRose and A.K. had an antagonistic relationship and that another student committed the same citation errors as A.K., but only received a 'C' from LaRose. Given all of these concerns and the disparate treatment of A.K. and the other student, the Court affirmed the trial court's granting of the temporary restraining order.

Note: Although this case was decided in Florida and thus is not binding in California, it reinforces the principle that private schools' disciplinary policies and actions must adhere to the basic "fundamental fairness" standard. Generally, factors used by courts in reviewing disciplinary decisions and procedures include whether the discipline was arbitrarily imposed, whether the schools adhered to their handbooks and policies, and whether the evidence reviewed supports the disciplinary decision.

In this case, the judge included dictum (which are comments not required to reach the decision) indicating that the facts of this case suggested a University review of the conduct of the Professor would be "well-advised". The judge seemed particularly affected by the fact that LaRose treated A.K. differently from other students, by belittling her and grading her paper differently from the other student who had similar citation issues, simply because A.K. offered an idea with which LaRose disagreed. All of these factors created the perception that A.K.'s academic violation charge and failing grade were arbitrarily made and the University was unable to put forth any evidence to suggest otherwise.

LaRose v. A.K. (2009) --- So.3d ---, 2009 WL 2194509 [Only the Westlaw citation is currently available.]
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