On October 24, 2016, the First Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a summary judgment decision in favor of a university in a case brought by a student who was disciplined for violating Harvard Law School’s plagiarism policy. In Walker v. President and Fellows of Harvard College, No. 15-1154 (1st Cir. 2016), the parties agreed that the law school’s student handbook constituted a contract between the law school and the student but disagreed on the meaning of the word “submit” as used in the plagiarism policy. In making its determination, the court applied principles of contract law and explored the plain meaning of the handbook language and the parties’ reasonable expectations.

Factual Background

During her final semester at Harvard Law School, student Megon Walker was selected to write an article for a student-run law journal. She was given a schedule for submitting drafts, including a deadline of February 22 for the final draft. Walker had worked on the staff of the journal since her first year of law school and was familiar with the rigorous editing and cite-checking process imposed on all articles in addition to the process that articles undergo after a student submits a final draft. Walker submitted a final draft two days after the February 22 deadline.

The journal’s editors found that one of the arguments in the draft was derivative of the dissent in one of the cited cases and discovered 23 instances of sentences copied from other sources. Harvard Law School’s dean of students referred the case to the school’s administrative board and, following a hearing, the board found that Walker violated the policy which stated that, “[a]ll work submitted by a student for any academic or non-academic exercise is expected to be the student’s own work.” The administrative board issued Walker a formal reprimand, which was placed on Walker’s transcript. Walker graduated, but at least one employer withdrew a job offer because of the reprimand.

Walker filed suit claiming that Harvard breached the terms of the contract set forth in the handbook. The law school’s handbook, which the parties agreed constituted a contract between the school and Walker, included a policy prohibiting plagiarism in “all work submitted,” even if the plagiarism was inadvertent. Walker claimed that she reasonably believed that the word “submit” in the plagiarism policy referred to the surrendering of completed work. She argued that she intended to further revise the article, and that the incomplete state of her draft made clear that she was not yet “submitting” it. Walker also claimed that the notation on her transcript of the administrative board’s plagiarism policy constituted defamation. The district court granted Harvard’s motion for summary judgment on all counts, finding that no student could reasonably believe that the plagiarism policy would not apply to the draft of an article such as the one that Walker had submitted.

The First Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the decision in Harvard’s favor, concluding that a student could not reasonably expect that the words “all work submitted” exempted the draft. Even if Walker viewed the article as a work in progress, the words “all work submitted” must be given their plain, everyday meaning, the court reasoned. The court also found that any communications from the editors of the journal acknowledging the incomplete nature of the draft did not change the terms of the contract as set forth in the handbook. The court also affirmed summary judgment on the defamation claim, finding that the claim had no basis given that Harvard acted within its rights under the contract.