Metropolitan News-Enterprise


Wednesday, October 10, 2018


Page 3


C.A. Orders USC Student’s Suspension for Cheating Reinstated


By a MetNews Staff Writer


The Court of Appeal for this district has upheld a University of Southern California student’s suspension for allegedly cheating on an examination, saying that the similarity between his and another student’s test booklet margin notes supported a finding that they had cheated.

The opinion reverses the judgment by Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Howard L. Halm, who found that there was not sufficient evidence to show the student (identified only as “John Doe”) had cheated. It was written by Presiding Justice Dennis M. Perluss of Div. Seven and certified for publication yesterday, after initially being filed in September as an unpublished opinion.

Perluss wrote:

“Although reasonable factfinders could disagree, substantial evidence supports USC’s decision that Doe cheated, a determination reached after a fair, albeit less than perfect, process.”

Allegation of Cheating

After scoring his final examination in a biology course, professors discovered that the student had answered 46 of 50 questions identically to another student who had sat beside him during the test. School officials discovered that both students’ examination booklets had answers written in their margins, large enough to read from a neighboring seat.

The student professed his innocence, claiming that the margin answers were simply part of his system of reviewing answers. Nevertheless, USC’s Office of Student Judicial Affairs and Community Standards (“SJACS”) review officer found that the student had shared answers with his classmate, and imposed a grade of “F” in the class and a two-semester suspension.

He appealed to the school’s administrative review panel, contending that the other student had been solely responsible for any cheating, and stating that “[t]he notion that I would receive help from a student I have historically outperformed is illogical.”

The panel affirmed the suspension.

Writ of Mandamus

The student challenged USC’s findings by way of a petition for writ of administrative mandate in the Superior Court. Halm agreed with the student’s argument that the evidence did not support the findings.

He noted the writing in the margins of the examination booklets and the number of identical answers, as well as testimony by the classmate (identified as “Student B”) that the two had studied together prior to the test.

Halm wrote:

“Based on this evidence alone, a reasonable trier of fact could have concluded, as did SJACS, that Petitioner collaborated with, provided answers to, and/or received answers from Student B during the examination.”

The judge continued:

“If Petitioner was ‘cheating’ either by receiving answers from Student B or sending answers to Student B, [USC] fails to explain how the ‘cheating’ was facilitated when 44% of the answers in the margins were not the same. How do two students sitting next to each other each score 92% (46/50 identical answers),[12] based on letter answers in the margins of each student’s exam where 44% of them are not the same?...The fact that 44% of the letter answers in the margins were not the same persuades this Court that there was, in fact, no substantial evidence to support the administrative body’s determination because putting letter answers in the margins could not have caused the students to have 46 of 50 identical answers.”

Perluss’s Opinion

Perluss observed that the answers in the margins were not uniformly identical, but said they indicated that one student had proposed answers for a given question, while the other responded in his margin.

He wrote:

“Although this pattern of cross-identity of proposed and actual answers between Doe and Student B might have been the product of independent work, SJACS’s conclusion it was the result of cheating is a reasonable inference, solidly grounded in the record.

“In contrast, the superior court’s observation that Doe’s and Student B’s marginal notes differed on 44 percent of the questions—the sole basis for its conclusion SJACS’s decision was not supported by substantial evidence and a point repeated by Doe on appeal—is of minimal probative value. In fact, Doe and Student B wrote different letters in the margins of their examination booklets in only two instances, questions 10 and 40 (that is, 4 percent of the time, not 44 percent).”

Due Process

Like Halm, Perluss dismissed the student’s argument that he had been deprived of a fair hearing. He noted that the student, assisted by his parents, had been permitted to inspect his own examination, and that he could have interviewed witnesses, with the help of either his parents or a lawyer.

“This procedure complied with USC’s rules governing the review process and satisfied the rudimentary requirements for a fair hearing,” Perluss said.

The student graduated in 2017, while the university’s appeal was pending. The biology class in question was required to obtain his degree.

“Determining the ultimate effect of our reversal of the superior court’s judgment, including whether Doe’s degree should be rescinded or the two-semester suspension imposed nearly three years after it was ordered, are matters properly entrusted to USC in the first instance,” Perluss said.

The case is Doe v. University of Southern California, 2018 S.O.S. 4935.

The student was represented on appeal by John G. Derrick of Santa Barbara. Kenneth R. Pedroza and Maureen M. Home of Cole Pedroza in San Marino, and Denise A. Nardi of Woodland Hills argued for USC.


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