weather icon Mostly Cloudy

Appeals court rules against ex-UNLV student in plagiarism case

A federal appeals court has dealt another blow to a former UNLV student waging an aggressive five-year court battle against school employees who accused her of plagiarism.

Sujanie Gamage, who was dropped from UNLV’s doctoral chemistry program in 2011, sued the school for not giving her a fair chance to defend herself from the claim and for intentionally hurting her academic reputation. She lost the case two years ago and since has fought the decision on appeal.

An opinion issued Friday by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals backed the January 2014 ruling by U.S. District Judge Gloria Navarro, bringing another defeat to Gamage and her legal team.

The appellate panel — made up of Judges M. Margaret McKeown, Kim Wardlaw and Richard Tallman — also agreed with a ruling by Navarro ordering Gamage and her attorney, Jason Bach, to pay UNLV more than $40,000 in legal fees for pursuing the “frivolous” case and “recklessly and in bad faith” duplicating court proceedings.

“Gamage admitted that she failed to conform to the University of Nevada-Las Vegas’s plagiarism policy in parts of her dissertation and that she made ‘mistakes,’” the decision reads. “She received more process than was due.”

Attempts to reach Gamage and Bach this week were unsuccessful. In a prepared statement, UNLV spokesman Tony Allen said the school was “pleased with the original U.S. District Court order … and is even more pleased with the decision of the Ninth Circuit.”

Gamage began writing a doctoral dissertation in early 2010, hoping to obtain a UNLV degree the next year. She submitted a draft to an advisory committee in 2011 and was accused of plagiarizing sections of the document, court documents show.

She blamed chemistry professor Vernon Hodge for writing a report containing “numerous false allegations” and handing it to Phil Burns, who oversees UNLV’s Office of Student Conduct.

As of October, the graduate program requires students to use UNLV-issued software to scan materials for stolen content.

“Plagiarism is exacerbated by the ease which published papers can be found and copied,” Hodge wrote in an email Wednesday.

An academic integrity panel decided that Gamage “had multiple opportunities to correct the plagiarism but did not,” and the school removed her from the program, the court records state.

Gamage filed a lawsuit in late 2011, accusing UNLV of committing libel and carrying out civil rights violations by unfairly considering her case. She sought to return to the program and asked for a minimum of $10,000 in damages.

After Gamage lost, Navarro granted a request for legal fees from UNLV’s attorneys topping $40,000.

Academic integrity experts say it’s unusual for students to turn to litigation after a plagiarism accusation.

“The vast majority of plagiarism cases are resolved without any kind of legal action,” said Teddi Fishman, who oversees the International Center for Academic Integrity based at Clemson University.

She emphasized the importance of reprimanding students who break cheating rules, noting that “if a university were to turn a blind eye to plagiarized theses and dissertations, credentials from that institution would become worthless.”

But Las Vegas-based attorney Allen Lichtenstein — who is representing a suspended UNLV student accusing the school of discrimination in an unrelated case — says academic oversight procedures can be subject to administrative abuse.

“It’s a rather strange situation in which those making the accusation are also doing the judging,” Lichtenstein said. “Just having a process — even if it’s not a fair process and you’re just going through the motions — is a little bit like having a rigged election.”

Contact Ana Ley at aley@reviewjournal.com or 702-224-5512. Find @la__ley on Twitter.

Don't miss the big stories. Like us on Facebook.