September 4, 2002

Demas '95 Lawsuit to Be Appealed

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The controversy surrounding Cornell’s protection of the rights of graduate students conducting research continued over the summer, as a New York state appeals court supported an earlier ruling freeing Cornell University from much of the responsibility for a professor’s alleged actions.

At the center of the storm is Antonia Demas Ph.D. ’95. According to Demas, Prof. David A. Levitsky, nutritional sciences, took credit for studies she herself conducted concerning the eating habits of elementary schoolchildren. Levitsky was a member of Demas’ graduate committee.

Demas alleged in her 1999 lawsuit that Levitsky failed to cite and furthermore took credit for her research in a proposal to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) for a research grant, which was received. The grant was later revoked due to late progress reports that lacked the detail necessary to show advancement towards the original goals of the proposal, according to the USDA.

Additionally, in her lawsuit, Demas alleged that Cornell did nothing to protect her from such actions.

Demas’ attorneys claim that one way Cornell failed was by not having a conduct code provision protecting graduate students from professors’ misconduct.

In May, an appeals court ruled that Cornell could not be held responsible for the alleged actions of Levitsky. Additionally, the Court denied a request made by Demas’ attorneys that it reassess its refusal of a claim that Levitsky breached a fiduciary (trust between persons with a disparity in power) towards her.

Albert Podell, co-council for Demas, disagreed with the decision.

“Cornell should be held vicariously liable” for actions of an individual if the person was acting in his capacity as a professor, he said.

Podell said that cases of graduate students alleging work stolen by professors are becoming more common around the country, and therefore the case will be an important decision in students’ rights.

“I get calls from graduate students all around the country telling me how they’ve been screwed over by stolen ideas,” he said.

The problem with these cases, according to Podell, is the “huge power gap” between professors and graduate students, and the trust the relationship requires.

“A graduate student has to put faith in the professor,” Podell said.

The case is currently being appealed at the state Supreme Court level, with a decision expected soon. According to Podell, more rules regarding this issue are necessary to protect students, professors and the University.

“We are working with a number of faculty to draft a code of academic conduct aimed at this point to protect graduate students from professors,” he said.

“There has been no change in the code of conduct,” said Henrik N. Dullea ’61, vice president for University relations, but the Faculty Senate and other University officials were aware of and followed the case.

University attorney Thomas D’Antonio said that counsel for Cornell “argued for the result the Court reached,” and that he was “certainly pleased” that the Court reached such a decision but declined further comment because of the pending litigation.

Dullea said that the University was “very pleased with the decision.”

Paul Battaglia, Levitsky’s attorney, declined comment because of the litigation still pending.

The original lawsuit filed by Demas against Cornell and Levitsky included 14 claims. Since then, many of these claims have been dropped. In February, an appeals court dismissed several of the claims made by Demas against Cornell, ruling that the University could not be held liable for the alleged actions of Levitsky.

The decision handed down by the Court stated, “Now turning to Cornell’s appeal, we conclude that Supreme Court erred in its resolution of Cornell’s motion with regard to all but one of the causes of action asserted against Cornell.”

The remaining claim against Cornell is concerning defamation.

Additionally, the Court ruled that two claims made against Levitsky could remain. “We therefore conclude that Supreme Court should have granted summary judgment dismissing the third (breach of contract) and sixth (breach of fiduciary duty) causes of action. The second (fraud) and fourth (breach of ombudsman contract) causes of action survive,” the decision stated.

Archived article by Kate Cooper