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No Pseudonymity in Student’s Claim That She Was Wrongly Found to Have Cheated

Out of doe v university by Penn.Judge Cynthia Rufe (ED Pa.) ruled today:

At all times relevant to this lawsuit, plaintiff was a student in Penn’s Pre-Med Post-Baccalaureate Program. The plaintiff began the program in May 2020 and had planned to apply to medical school upon its completion in spring 2021. The plaintiff alleges that Professor Simon Tong created a discriminatory environment in her chemistry lab class by making the course “more difficult for the plaintiff” who was the only South Asian woman in the class. The plaintiff alleges that Professor Tong “would not agree with the plaintiff [request for an] Extension… because of their race, [but] granted an extension of instruction if other non-minority students joined the motion.” …

Plaintiff alleges that near the end of the program, her classmate HB emailed her questions about a final lab report that each student was required to fill out (“the lab report”). Plaintiff alleges that HB sent that email on behalf of AR, another classmate who originally asked HB the same questions. The plaintiff replied to HB’s email the same day, answering the questions and attaching a copy of her completed lab report. HB then forwarded the plaintiff’s lab report to AR, and AR used the plaintiff’s lab report to complete its own.

On May 12, 2021, the plaintiff received a notice from the Office of Student Conduct stating that the plaintiff was charged with violating Penn’s Academic Integrity Code by producing a lab report substantially similar to AR’s to Penn, stating that only the plaintiff and AR – two minority students – had been accused of fraud, but not HB – a Caucasian male student. The plaintiff then met with the Vice Provost and the Director of the Penn Women’s Center and informed them of Professor Tong’s alleged discriminatory conduct. Plaintiff alleges that Penn did not adequately follow up with plaintiff after that meeting.

On July 9, 2021, the plaintiff received a letter from Penn formally charging her with breaching academic integrity. After a hearing before a hearing panel, the plaintiff was found responsible for violating Penn’s Academic Integrity Code and received a one-and-a-half-year suspension.

Federal Rule 10(a) of the Code of Civil Procedure requires all parties to be named in the case signature.6 Rule 10(a) “clarifies ‘the principle that judicial proceedings, both civil and criminal, shall be conducted in public'”. Thus, only in “exceptional cases” is a party allowed to proceed on an anonymous basis. Courts have long recognized that the circumstances of a case, particularly where litigants are exposed to extreme hardship or danger as a result of their participation in the judicial proceeding, may justify allowing a party to proceed under an alias. This status was granted in cases involving “abortion, birth control, transsexuality, mental illness, welfare rights of illegitimate children, AIDS and homosexuality”. However, the potential for embarrassment or economic damage is insufficient…

In this case, the potential harm to the plaintiff and similar parties is insufficient to outweigh the public interest in an open proceeding. Plaintiff argues that disclosure of her name in this lawsuit “would be permanently associated with her[] baseless allegations” and may affect her chances of admission to medical school and/or her ability to pursue future career opportunities. In short, Plaintiff argues that anonymity is necessary to prevent possible embarrassment and economic harm that, like mentioned above, are insufficient justifications for using a pseudonym. In addition, in at least two cases in this district, it was explicitly stated that reduced chances of admission to vocational schools do not justify anonymity.

Plaintiff’s other arguments in favor of anonymity are similarly unsuccessful. For example, the plaintiff alleges that her identity has remained largely confidential, that she may not be able to proceed with the case if this application is denied, and that people in a similar position would be discouraged from filing comparable lawsuits. Since this case is about allegedly discriminatory behavior on the part of a university, the public has a strong interest in the outcome and would suffer as a result in the event of early dismissal. Nonetheless, “a plaintiff’s refusal to go to court openly cannot outweigh the public’s interest in open trials.”

As to the plaintiff’s contention regarding similarly situated plaintiffs, she offers no support for her position that such persons would be deterred from asserting their rights. Indeed, there are numerous examples of plaintiffs suing on their own behalf, alleging that universities and school districts falsely accused them of racial fraud. Since the plaintiff’s interest in anonymous litigation does not “sufficiently outweigh” the public interest in open proceedings, her application for proceedings under a pseudonym is rejected.

The defendant does not appear to dispute that the non-parties to this matter, AR and HB, should be allowed to remain anonymous. The Court notes that these non-litigants have significant interests in anonymity that are not outweighed by the public interest in an open trial. The plaintiff’s motion with respect to the non-affiliated students is granted and those individuals are identified by their initials “HB” and “AR,” respectively.

Congratulations to James Keller, Patrick Nugent and Kruti Patel (Saul Ewing Arnstein & Lehr LLP) who represent the University.



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