Dongguk lawsuit heads to trial

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.


  • attila

    This is all because of Dean Schirmeister, who incorrectly certified that Shin Jeong-ah had a Yale PhD.

    What happens at Yale when an administrator screws up on such a basic and important matter, and gets Yale sued for $50 million?

    They promote her!

  • August

    @Attila- That’s the way it is in pretty much all Yale departments. You screw up, or just can’t seem to do your job right you get a promotion. One of these days the villiage idiot will be the head of the corporation.

  • The_Lorax

    This is unbelievable. When did So. Korea eclipse the US in the frivolous lawsuits department?

    • penny_lane

      Shame is a much bigger deal in Korean culture than it is here. It’s not frivolous to them.

      • River_Tam

        The magnitude of shame is not relevant to the frivolity of this lawsuit.

        The lawsuit is frivolous or not frivolous on the basis of whether there is sufficient evidence to support claims of negligence and defamation.

        • penny_lane

          Well, it’s more complex than that. We have a guilt based culture, meaning we determine morality and justice based on internal purposes and decisions. They determine morality based on how much external disapproval would be warranted by an action, how much dishonor you would bring yourself, your family, or institution. In the eyes of Korean culture, they are admirably standing up for the reputation of their university.

          I personally agree that it’s frivolous, but I also acknowledge that my values are different from Korean values. I think that looking back we will see this case as an interesting example of clashing cultures/values in an international society.

    • yalengineer

      When everyone started forging documents.

  • concerned

    I am sick and tired of Yale’s zombie approach to legal defense. Insufficient evidence? Hello, this is a university. It’s more like insufficient responsibility, and, as per legal defense, possible collusion and coverup. Not a piece of cake in the real world.