September 1, 2000

C.U. Argues for Demas Dismissal

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Over the summer, attorneys for the University and Prof. David A. Levitsky, nutritional sciences, argued in favor of their motion to have a multi-million dollar lawsuit against their clients dismissed.

The plaintiffs responded to the dismissal request both with a written brief and at the July hearing in Schuyler County Court. The dismissal seeks to end a lawsuit that began in March 1999, when former graduate student Antonia Demas Ph.D. ’95 filed a complaint in Tompkins County Court alleging that Levitsky took credit for her research and that Cornell did not step in to protect her.

The original 58-page lawsuit cites 14 causes of action against the University and Levitsky. The suit lists negligence, misappropriation, defamation and fraud, among other allegations, and asks for compensatory and punitive damages that could total over $50 million.

Demas’ doctoral dissertation included research on the effects of educating elementary school children to improve their eating habits. She claims that her work, which won two national awards, was improperly used by Levitsky.

At the hearing, lawyers for Cornell argued that the case should be dismissed because several of Demas’ claims were made beyond the amount of time in which a plaintiff may sue for damages.

In addition, the defense stated that the University has its own process for making academic and administrative decisions, and courts typically do not review these proceedings.

“Historically, courts don’t become involved in the internal affairs of the University,” said Thomas D’Antonio, a lawyer for Cornell.

Lawyers for Levitsky also addressed the issue of New York State copyright law, under which no one can own a theory.

The plaintiff’s side argued that Demas’ theories were protected through her dissertation, which was published and copyrighted in 1994.

They also held that Demas can sue the University for fraud and breach of contract because her suit does not involve a “grading dispute, dismissal, expulsion, suspension or a decision regarding whether she has fulfilled the requirements for graduation,” according to their brief.

Finally, her attorneys refuted claims that the complaint was not within the statute of limitations, arguing that it was filed less than six years after Cornell’s alleged breach of contract and within one year of alleged defamatory comments made by former Provost Don M. Randel regarding Demas’ work.

Randel was cited in the complaint for making disparaging comments about Demas and her work at a meeting of the President’s Council for Cornell Women.

In July, Prof. Emeritus Rada Dyson-Hudson, anthropology, issued a letter to the University of Chicago’s Board of Trustees, where Randel became president this summer, and to Chicago’s chair of gender studies, stating that “a number of women associated with Cornell University have been deeply disturbed” by Randel’s appointment.

“The one weapon we have is publicity … bad publicity as a way of putting pressure on Cornell,” said Dyson-Hudson. “They try to discredit you, they try to destroy you, they try to overwhelm you.”

Officials from the University of Chicago were not available yesterday and representatives declined to comment.

Archived article by Beth Herskovits