A $50 million lawsuit filed against Yale by South Korea’s Dongguk University will proceed to trial in June, following a Friday ruling by a Connecticut federal judge.
The ruling is the latest development in a legal saga that began in March 2008, when Dongguk sued Yale for first confirming that the professed doctorate degree of Dongguk art history professor Shin Jeong-ah was real, and then claiming the error had never occurred. The story drew national attention in South Korea and led to the resignations of Dongguk’s president and board of trustees.
Over the past four years, Dongguk’s lawyers have argued that Yale was negligent both in failing to verify the authenticity of a letter confirming Shin’s degree and in subsequently denying the mistake. Though Yale has twice attempted to have the case dismissed, the second motion — which argued that Dongguk’s lawyers did not have sufficient evidence to argue their claims — was denied Friday and a trial is now scheduled for June 4.
Robert Weiner, an attorney at New York law firm McDermott Will & Emery which is representing Dongguk, called the ruling a “big event” for Yale.
“This means there will be a trial, and it means that many of [Yale’s] senior administrative officials will be serving as witnesses for a trial that will be covered internationally,” Weiner said. “I guarantee to you that the Korean press will be there in droves.”
The case filed against Yale had three claims: the University committed “reckless and wanton” actions, was negligent and defamed Dongguk. Judge Tucker Melançon ruled Friday that Dongguk’s lawyers’ evidence did not support claims of “reckless and wanton” actions by Yale because those actions did not cause physical harm or injury. But Melançon also ruled that a trial was needed to determine whether Yale had acted negligently or defamed Dongguk.
University President Richard Levin declined to comment Monday because he had not read Melançon’s ruling. Both University General Counsel Dorothy Robinson and Yale spokeswoman Elizabeth Stauderman said the ruling was partially in Yale’s favor, and that the University is preparing its case for the trial.
“Yale continues to believe that the lawsuit is without merit, and we will present a vigorous defense,” Stauderman said in an email Monday.
Though Melançon dismissed one of the claims against Yale, Weiner said Dongguk’s case will not be weakened in court.
After Shin’s degree was found to be fraudulent, lawyers representing Dongguk argued that Yale’s negligence had damaged the South Korean school’s reputation and cost it millions. Dongguk’s lawyers alleged in 2009 that the school lost $18 million on a cancelled law school, $8 million in government grants and $15 million in promised donations as a result of Yale’s negligence.
If the court were to rule in Dongguk’s favor, Weiner said Yale could be liable for the cost of Dongguk’s financial losses, along with compensation for alleged damage to the university’s reputation. Weiner added that the latter is more difficult to quantify and could vary as a result.
“Particularly in an Asian country, reputation is very important,” Weiner said. “That damage is not easily measured.”
Shin served 18 months in prison for forging her Yale degree and two others from the University of Kansas.