Tort Law

2nd Circuit nixes $50M suit against Yale over PhD mix-up that fanned hiring scandal flames


A federal appeals court has affirmed the dismissal of a case in which a South Korean university sought tens of millions of dollars in tort damages from Yale University after hiring a professor who falsely claimed to have earned a doctorate degree at Yale.

A major scandal resulted from Dongguk University’s hiring of Shin Jeong-ah, after a Yale administrator mistakenly confirmed that Shin’s faked art history doctorate was legitimate. The prominent Seoul-based institution said it suffered substantial damage to its reputation and lost over $50 million in government grants, alumni donations and other funding as a result of a convoluted saga that included a claimed affair between Shin and a South Korean government official that may have resulted in pressure to hire Shin or cover up her possibly plagiarized dissertation, explains a Thursday opinion (PDF) by the New York City-based 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Dongguk said it was “publicly humiliated and deeply shamed” and sought damages from Yale for alleged defamation, negligence and reckless conduct, pointing to follow-up statements from Yale as the Korean media covered the unfolding scandal. Initially, Yale officials publicly stated there had never been any confirmation of Shin’s purported doctorate. Subsequent investigation showed that an administrator apparently had confirmed to Dongguk that a faked “certification” on Yale letterhead that included misspellings was real. Hence, at least one document on which Dongguk relied in assessing the legitimacy of Shin’s claimed doctorate from Yale was in fact real.

However, the 2nd Circuit said a trial court correctly dismissed the plaintiff’s claims, because no one at Yale acted with actual malice and because a chain of causation between the administrator’s mistaken confirmation of Shin’s degree and Dongguk’s damages was tenuous, at best. Further, First Amendment protection applied to statements made to the media, the court noted.

The Associated Press and the Wall Street Journal Law Blog (sub. req.) have stories.

Earlier coverage:

ABAJournal.com: “Judge Refuses to Toss $50M Suit Claiming Yale Wrongly Confirmed Fake Degree”

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