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Walker v. President and Fellows of Harvard College

United States Court of Appeals, First Circuit

October 24, 2016

MEGON WALKER, Plaintiff, Appellant,


          John J.E. Markham, II, for appellant.

          Daryl J. Lapp, with whom Elizabeth H. Kelley was on brief, for appellee.

          Before Thompson and Kayatta, Circuit Judges and Mastroianni, [*] District Judge.

          MASTROIANNI, District Judge.

         Between 2006 and 2009 Megon Walker ("Walker") attended Harvard Law School ("HLS"). Walker was a member of the staff of a student-run law journal, the Journal of Law and Technology ("JOLT"). During her final semester at HLS, Walker delivered a draft article (the "Note") to senior staff of JOLT. After concerns arose among the senior staff regarding the Note, an investigation was launched by HLS. The HLS Administrative Board (the "Board") subsequently held a hearing and found the Note contained plagiarism in violation of the HLS Handbook of Academic Policies (the "Handbook"). Walker received a formal reprimand and a notation regarding the matter was added to her transcript. Despite the reprimand, Walker graduated on time from HLS. However, after the notation was placed on her transcript, at least one law firm rescinded a lucrative offer of employment.

         Seeking to have the notation removed from her transcript, Walker initiated this suit asserting claims for breach of contract and defamation against the President and Fellows of Harvard College ("Harvard")[1]; Ellen Cosgrove ("Cosgrove"), then-Dean of Students at HLS; and Lloyd Weinreb, a Professor at HLS and Chair of the Board in 2009 (together "Defendants").[2] After the completion of discovery and a stipulation of dismissal as to some claims, Defendants filed their Motion for Summary Judgment. The district court granted summary judgment for Defendants on all counts and dismissed the action. Walker has appealed the ruling on two of the counts. After reviewing the issues de novo, we affirm.

         I. Background

         Walker initiated this suit in May 2012. Jurisdiction is based on diversity and the claims are brought under Massachusetts law. Four counts were pending when Defendants filed their Motion for Summary Judgment: Count I - breach of contract against Harvard based on the Board's finding that Walker had sufficiently "submitted" the Note for it to be covered by the Handbook; Count II - breach of contract against Harvard based on alleged failures of the Board to comply with provisions in the Handbook; Count IV - defamation based on the inclusion of the plagiarism findings in Walker's HLS transcript; and Count VI - asserting an entitlement to injunctive relief.[3] Walker has appealed only the district court's grant of summary judgment as to Counts I and IV. We, therefore, set out the facts we deem relevant to those counts in the light most favorable to her and draw all reasonable inferences in her favor. See Martinez v. Petrenko, 792 F.3d 173, 175 (1st Cir. 2015).

         A. Preparation of the Note

         As a first year student at HLS, Walker joined the staff of JOLT. Walker first worked as a "sub-citer, " checking citations against their original source material. During her last year of law school, Walker applied to write a comment for JOLT on a recently decided patent case. Her application was accepted and she commenced work on the comment, which was to be published in the spring of her third year.

         Upon acceptance of her application, JOLT informed Walker that an initial complete draft of the Note would be due on February 1, 2009. The deadline for the final draft of the Note was February 22, 2009. Walker understood that the piece she turned in on (or after) the February 22, 2009 deadline would be subjected to the rigorous editing and citation-checking process she had helped with as a sub-citer. As that process normally unfolded, an author was not permitted to make changes to an article during the editing and citation-checking process. At the conclusion of that process, authors were permitted to make limited changes prior to publication.

         Walker delivered a first draft of the Note to JOLT on February 2, 2009. She turned in a second draft on February 8, 2009, and a third draft on February 16, 2009. Around the time the third draft was due, Walker began experiencing problems with her laptop. On the day she sent the third draft to JOLT, her laptop was infected with a computer virus. While working on her computer with IT support, Walker saw Anna Volfstun ("Volfstun"), JOLT's Submissions Editor. She told Volfstun about the virus and explained that due to the virus, the Note would require significant additional work to be made ready for publication. The next day, on February 17, 2009, Walker attended a JOLT student writing committee meeting where she discussed the virus causing her to lose data from her computer.

         On February 20, 2009, Doug Kochelek ("Kochelek"), the JOLT editor in charge of student articles, sent an email to remind Walker and other students their final draft articles were due on February 22, 2009. Kochelek said the articles would be "subcited" the following weekend before being returned "after spring break for [authors'] last round of review with opportunity for changes." Walker responded, via email, on February 22, 2009: "I doubt that I can send [the Note] before 10 tonight. Footnotes and proofreading are taking all weekend." When Kochelek asked Walker when she would be sending ...

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