Dongguk University v. Yale University: In an unusual legal battle that pitted two universities from opposite parts of the world, a federal judge has dismissed claims that Yale University damaged the reputation of a South Korean university embroiled in a political scandal.
In 2005, Dongguk University, based in Seoul, was checking the credentials of a candidate for an art history teaching job. The woman claimed to have received a doctorate from Yale, and the Ivy League school’s officials told their Dongguk counterparts that they had bestowed the advanced degree. Except that turned out to be incorrect; the professor candidate had not, in fact, attended Yale.
What was the big deal about the alleged error?
Shin Jeong-ah was hired to fill the art history post — and she then went on to have a scandalous love affair with an aide to South Korea’s president.
So in 2008, Dongguk sued Yale in U.S. District Court in Connecticut. It sought $50 million, claiming it lost that amount in government grants, alumni donations and costs of building a law school the government later refused to approve because of the scandal.
Robert A. Weiner, a New York City lawyer who represents Dongguk in the dispute, said Dongguk is the most prestigious Buddhist university in the world and it suffered a huge blow to its reputation with the scandal. The arguments didn’t sway U.S. District Judge Tucker Melancon, who dismissed the lawsuit on June 8. He ruled that Yale did not act with malice and was not negligent.
“The Court can only conclude that if the case were allowed to proceed to trial there could be but one verdict that a jury of reasonable persons could reach: a verdict in favor of Yale and against Dongguk,” wrote Melancon.
Howard Fetner, of Day Pitney in Hartford, was the lead attorney representing Yale. He was assisted by Felix J. Springer and Jeffrey P. Mueller, also of Day Pitney. Fetner was not granted permission by Yale officials to discuss the case with the Law Tribune.
Thomas P. Conroy, Yale’s press secretary, said in an e-mail that the university was “pleased” with Judge Melancon’s decision to dismiss the lawsuit.
“We have always believed that this case was without legal merit,” said Conroy.
Shin, the Dongguk art history professor, was sentenced in March 2008 to 18 months in a South Korean jail for using fake Yale credentials to get the professor’s job at Dongguk and for embezzling museum funds. Officials said she also faked two University of Kansas degrees in order to land the job in 2005.
Former presidential aide Byeon Yang-kyoon was accused of using his influence to get Shin hired by Dongguk. He was forced to step down as an aide to then-President Roh Moo-hyun because of the scandal.
Byeon was sentenced to a suspended one-year jail term and 160 hours of community service in 2008 for exercising his influence to provide state tax benefits to a Buddhist temple founded by a former Dongguk official who helped hire Shin as a professor.
According to court documents, Shin, in her application to Dongguk, said she received a Ph.D. from Yale in 20th Century Art. Shin provided Dongguk with a letter dated May 27, 2005 on Yale letterhead signed by Pamela Schirmeister, associate dean at Yale.
By September 2005, Dongguk received information that raised questions about whether Shin had actually earned a Yale degree. So a Dongguk administrator sent a registered letter to Schirmeister asking her to confirm that she had indeed signed the earlier letter. Schirmeister, in a faxed reply, said that she had indeed signed the letter and that Shin had earned a Yale degree.
Relying on that fax, Dongguk allowed Shin to continue teaching into 2007. Questions again surfaced about Shin in 2007 when Dongguk officials were given information that the dissertation she claimed to have written while studying at Yale was plagiarized.
A Yale librarian then said, via e-mail with a Dongguk official, it had no record of Shin’s dissertation. Soon Yale officials realized their mistake and told Dongguk that Shin had never received a doctorate from the Ivy League school, and acknowledged that the initial letter confirming the degree was bogus and forged.
According to the complaint filed by plaintiffs attorney Weiner, Schirmeister never responded to an e-mail from Dongguk officials asking why she had confirmed Shin’s degree in 2005 only to have Yale flip-flop two years later and say the woman never attended the university.
Yale apologized to Dongguk in late 2007 for what it called an administrative error, but by that time Dongguk officials said the damage to the school’s reputation had been done. South Korean media reported in the summer and fall of 2007 that Shin’s academic degrees were a fraud, that Dongguk failed to verify Shin’s degrees, that Shin had an affair with Byeon and that Byeon had recommended to Dongguk officials that they hire Shin, court records say. Dongguk tried defending their decision to hire Shin at a press conference.
Dongguk then sued Yale for negligence, reckless and wanton conduct, breach of an implied contract, and defamation.
But Yale said it did nothing to merit being held responsible for the series of unfortunate events in South Korea. It said it had not acted with malice — intentional disregard for the truth — when it mistakenly confirmed Shin’s degree. The university made two unsuccessful motions to dismiss the case, in August 2011 and February 2012.
After the Feburary motion, Melancon granted Yale’s request to dismiss the reckless and wanton conduct claim. In the latest ruling, he also dismissed the negligence and defamation charges, saying he had previously applied the wrong standard of proof when he allowed those portions of the suit to go forward. He said that Dongguk needed to offer “clear and convincing evidence” that Yale acted with malice.
Dongguk claimed in its lawsuit that when Yale officials provided the second erroneous confirmation without conducting any investigation, and that in itself amounted to negligence. Bu the judge ruled that “a failure to investigate by itself is not enough to prove actual malice” unless the failure was a willful avoidance of the truth. Schirmeister’s mistaken confirmation did not meet that standard, he said.
Weiner, of McDermott, Will & Emery in New York City, said the South Korean university was still analyzing Judge Melancon’s decision before deciding whether or not to file an appeal. “We are extremely surprised by the decision,” Weiner said.•
The Associated Press contributed to this story.