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CLAYTON v. TRUSTEES OF PRINCETON UNIV.

August 6, 1981

Robert CLAYTON, Plaintiff,
v.
The TRUSTEES OF PRINCETON UNIVERSITY, a corporation of the State of New Jersey, Defendant.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: ACKERMAN

Amphioxus is a genus of small creatures possessing a fairly simple set of organs. The genus is distinguished, among other things, by the presence of a notochord, which may be described as a primitive spinal column. Evolutionists sometimes give the amphioxus credit for being the first creatures to possess a notochord, a feature that they believe eventually led to the evolution of the human spinal column. Whether the evolutionists are right or wrong, it is clear that the case before me today evolved from one poor amphioxus that had been cut up so that its notochord could be displayed to a group of Princeton University undergraduates. The students were taking a type of test known as a lab practical which required them to identify various specimens or parts thereof as they moved from station to station in a biology lab. Robert Clayton, who is the plaintiff in this case, was accused by a fellow student of changing an answer on his test so that the notochord would be correctly identified. A disciplinary body known as the Princeton Honor Committee convicted him on this charge and suspended him from Princeton for one year. This decision was affirmed by the President of Princeton University, William G. Bowen. Although Mr. Clayton has now returned to Princeton to complete his undergraduate studies, he has brought this suit challenging both the procedures and the sufficiency of the evidence relied upon by Princeton in reaching its decision to suspend him. This Court has both diversity and federal question jurisdiction over the case. The case is before me today on cross-motions for summary judgment.

The parties have each filed extensive briefs and documentation with the Court in support of their respective motions. I have read their papers and many of the authorities cited carefully and it is clear to me that the question of what role a Court should play in student disciplinary matters is a matter in dispute not only between the parties but among the various courts and legal scholars that have considered the question. The plaintiff has set forth both common law and constitutional claims in his complaint. Insofar as common law claims are made the parties are in agreement that New Jersey law applies. In accordance with well-established jurisprudential principles I must, of course, consider any common law claims before addressing whatever constitutional issues may be present. Siler v. Louisville & Nashville Railroad Co., 213 U.S. 175, 193, 29 S. Ct. 451, 455, 53 L. Ed. 753 (1909). The principal difficulty with this approach is that neither the parties' nor my own research has turned up a New Jersey decision dealing with the standards to be applied in considering disciplinary actions taken by a university. I must, therefore, predict as best I can what standards would be applied to this case by a New Jersey court. Becker v. Interstate Properties, 569 F.2d 1203, 1204-06 (3d Cir. 1977).

 Mr. Clayton's first line of attack on the validity of his suspension is that Princeton did not follow its own rules in reaching its decision to suspend him. In support of this argument he relies upon the 1980 decision of the New York Court of Appeals, that state's highest court, in Tedeschi v. Wagner College, 49 N.Y.2d 652, 427 N.Y.S.2d 760, 404 N.E.2d 1302 (Ct.App.1980). In that opinion Judge Meyer wrote:

 
We do not find it necessary in the present case to resolve such problems as may arise out of the different theoretical predicates. Whether by analogy to the law of associations, on the basis of a supposed contract between university and student, or simply as a matter of essential fairness in the somewhat one-sided relationship between the institution and the individual, we hold that when a university has adopted a rule or guideline establishing the procedure to be followed in relation to suspension or expulsion that procedure must be substantially observed.

 49 N.Y.S.2d at 659, 404 N.E.2d 1302. Princeton argues that a less rigorous standard should be applied and that the court should only determine whether Mr. Clayton was accorded basic procedural fairness. In applying this standard, Princeton argues that the court should not be unduly concerned with whether the University followed its written procedures as long as the procedures actually followed provided basic procedural fairness. In support of this standard Princeton relies upon such cases as Sill v. Pennsylvania State University, 462 F.2d 463 (3d Cir. 1972); Wisch v. Sanford School, Inc., 420 F. Supp. 1310 (D.Del.1976); and Edwards v. Board of Regents of Northwest Missouri State University, 397 F. Supp. 822 (W.D.Mo.1975). It should be noted that the Sill case, which is a Third Circuit opinion, only discussed constitutional questions in a challenge to disciplinary procedures followed by a state university. It is not, therefore, binding upon this court's consideration of the common law relationship between a student and a private university.

 In choosing between the two approaches proffered by the parties I have been greatly influenced by New Jersey's law of associations. It is in that area that the New Jersey courts have confronted situations where contract rights, property rights, and rights of personal freedom merge into a relationship similar to the one between a student and a university. For example, in Higgins v. American Society of Clinical Pathologists, 51 N.J. 191, 238 A.2d 665 (1968), the New Jersey Supreme Court considered the situation of a professionally qualified medical technologist whose certification by the defendant society had been revoked after she had violated an ethical standard promulgated by the society. In discussing the nature of her loss, Justice Proctor wrote for a unanimous court:

 
The rights accorded to members of an association traditionally have been analyzed either in terms of property interests that is, some interest in the assets of the organization, or in terms of contract rights that is, reciprocal rights and duties laid down in the constitution and bylaws. These theories, however, are incomplete since they often prevent the courts from considering the genuine reasons for and against relief, and have been extensively criticized. Leading commentators have pointed out that the real reason for judicial relief against wrongful expulsion is the protection of the member's valuable personal relationship to the association and the status conferred by that relationship. As Professor Chafee has noted, "the wrong is a tort, not a breach of contract, and the tort consists in the destruction of the relation rather than in a remote and conjectural right to receive property." The loss of status resulting from the destruction of one's relationship to a professional organization ofttimes may be more harmful than a loss of property or contractual rights and properly may be the subject of judicial protection. This State's highest court has recognized that personal rights, as distinguished from property or contractual rights, are a proper subject for judicial protection. In Vanderbilt v. Mitchell, 72 N.J.Eq. 910 (67 A. 97) (E. & A. 1907), the court held that the technical violation of complainant's property rights warranted judicial relief, but went on to say:
 
"If it appeared in this case that only the complainant's status and personal rights were thus threatened or thus invaded * * * we should hold, and without hesitation, that an individual has rights, other than property rights, which he can enforce in a court of equity and which a court of equity will enforce against invasion, and we should declare that the claimant was entitled to relief * * *."
 
Id., at p. 919 (67 A. 97)
 
Though it may be conceded that the plaintiff in the present case has suffered neither tangible economic loss nor any loss remediable under the traditional contract and property theories, we believe that her membership represented an interest of sufficient value to warrant judicial protection if it has been subjected to an unjust interference. Certification of the plaintiff by ASCP conferred upon her the standing of a competent professional. Her membership in this professional society gave her recognition and status, two important elements of professional success. According to the defendant's pamphlet, quoted earlier in this opinion, the Registry "has elevated the status of the medical laboratory worker to a high professional level." From the record it is clear that the designation M.T. (ASCP) is the hallmark of competence in the field of medical technology. Plaintiff's status as a certificate holder imparts a certain cachet which distinguishes her from those non-certified laboratory workers who presumably are not as well trained or well qualified as is the plaintiff. Certification by ASCP and listing in its Registry is the concrete and authoritative recognition of high professional attainment in the field. Because the Registry has come to be recognized by the leading medical and hospital groups as the only authoritative qualifying body for medical technologists, the certificate gives to its holder a valuable distinction. It is beyond doubt that plaintiff's standing in her profession has been impaired by the loss of this distinction. We conclude that the plaintiff's stake in her professional status is substantial enough to warrant at least limited judicial examination of the reason for her expulsion.

 Higgins, 51 N.J. at 199-202, 238 A.2d 665 (citations omitted). This analysis seems equally applicable to Mr. Clayton's case. The defendant would hardly deny that there is a certain cachet to an undergraduate degree from Princeton University. Nor can it reasonably be denied that the value of the degree is impaired by the presence of a notation of disciplinary suspension on the academic transcript. It is undisputed that Princeton's action in suspending Mr. Clayton has had a significant impact upon his status as an honorable member of the academic community. Indeed, Princeton would not have it any other way. Princeton justifiably views cheating as a serious offense against the standards of its academic community which is worthy of serious punishment. It is clear to me, therefore, that the New Jersey courts, following Higgins, would provide some measure of protection to Mr. Clayton's status as a member in good standing of Princeton's academic community.

 To state that the New Jersey courts would provide some measure of protection to Mr. Clayton does not, however, answer the question of what standards would be applied in reviewing a student disciplinary matter. Higgins, which concerned itself with whether the ethical standard in question was void as against public policy, addressed a related issue only in dictum stating that an association and its members are generally bound by the private law of the association. 51 N.J. at 202, 238 A.2d 665. When the New Jersey courts have directly addressed the question of whether an association must observe its own rules in disciplining a member the answer has always been yes. A good example of this is Baugh v. Thomas, 56 N.J. 203, 265 A.2d 675 (1970). In that case the plaintiffs alleged that they had been expelled from their church in violation of established procedures for expulsion of members. The New Jersey Supreme Court unanimously reversed the conclusion of the lower courts that there was no jurisdiction to review such a claim. The court held that when neither spiritual nor doctrinal matters were involved in the case a court should hold a church to its own rules. In this regard, the court stated that a church should be treated like any other voluntary association. 56 N.J. at 208-209, 265 A.2d 675. In other contexts as well the New Jersey courts have insisted upon adherence to an organization's own rules. See, e.g., Walsh v. International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, 136 N.J.Eq. 115, 40 A.2d 623 (E. & A. 1944) affirming 22 N.J.Misc. 161, 37 A.2d 667 (Chancery 1944) (trade union); Calabrese v. Policemen's Benevolent Association, Local No. 76, 157 N.J.Super. 139, 384 A.2d 579 (L.Div.1978) (trade union); Leeds v. Harrison, 7 N.J.Super. 558, 72 A.2d 371 (Chancery 1950) (Y.W.C.A.); Height v. Democratic Women's Luncheon Club of New Jersey, Inc., 131 N.J.Eq. 450, 25 A.2d 899 (Chancery 1942) (political organization). I do not believe that the New Jersey courts would extend greater deference to a University than they have extended to churches, unions, Y's, and political organizations. Certainly the proposition that once an organization has established rules for itself it must follow them is not a radical proposition. Princeton voluntarily promulgated the procedures that Mr. Clayton claims it violated in suspending him. It is not unreasonable to hold Princeton to the requirement of substantial compliance with those procedures. I have concluded, therefore, that the New Jersey courts would approach this case in a manner similar to that taken in Tedeschi, supra. If Mr. Clayton can demonstrate that Princeton materially breached its procedures in deciding to suspend him then he will be entitled to some form of relief from this court.

 It remains to be seen whether either party is entitled to summary judgment when this principle is applied to the record before me. In answering that question I have given each party, in turn, the benefit of every factual inference that can reasonably be drawn from the record in opposition to the motion as required by Janek v. Celebrezze, 336 F.2d 828 (3d Cir. 1964), and many other cases. When these standards are applied to the record neither party can be granted the relief sought today.

 Two examples of material facts in dispute will suffice. As mentioned earlier in this opinion, Mr. Clayton's suspension was ordered by a body known as the Princeton Honor Committee and affirmed by the University president. The Honor Committee is entirely composed of undergraduates, all of whom are either presidents or past presidents of their class. The powers, procedures and responsibilities of the Honor Committee are largely defined in a document known as the Honor Constitution. The Honor Constitution is the central document in this case. It is readily available to all students at Princeton as it is reprinted in such publications as the Princeton University Undergraduate Announcement; Rights, Rules, Responsibilities Guidelines for Students ; and The Daily Princetonian. It is also drawn to each student's attention at the time that he or she is accepted for admission. At that time every prospective student is sent a copy of the Honor Constitution and required to write a short statement displaying an understanding of its significance. It is undisputed that Mr. Clayton complied with this requirement for admission to Princeton, although neither party has been able to produce a copy of his statement. When the Honor Constitution is reprinted it is frequently accompanied by a few paragraphs of interpretative material. Mr. Clayton relies on the language of both the ...


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