Ruling in the University’s favor last week, a Connecticut federal judge ended a four-year battle against Yale by a university in Seoul over a forged degree that sparked a national scandal in South Korea.
Dongguk University filed a $50 million defamation lawsuit against Yale in March 2008, three years after the University verified the authenticity of Dongguk art history professor Shin Jeong-ah’s forged Yale doctorate degree. When the degree was exposed as fake in 2007, Yale denied that it had ever made the mistaken verification. The story, known as “Shin-gate,” became one of South Korea’s most reported stories of 2007 and led to the resignations of Dongguk’s president and board of trustees. Dongguk alleged that Yale’s negligence cost it millions in damage to its reputation and project cancellations.
While the University eventually acknowledged it had made an “administrative error” in confirming the forged doctorate, Dongguk refused to accept University President Richard Levin’s apologies and filed suit. The University made two unsuccessful motions to dismiss the case in August 2011 and February 2012, but Connecticut federal judge Tucker Melançon withdrew his ruling on the February 2012 motion Friday, claiming his original ruling “overlooked” arguments about the burden of proof for defamation and negligence in the case.
“The Court erred as a matter of law in the [February 2012 ruling] by applying the lesser standard of proof, preponderance of the evidence, rather than the proper standard of proof, clear and convincing evidence,” Melançon said in a decision filed Friday.
The lawsuit traces its roots to Sept. 1, 2005, when Dongguk hired Shin Jeong-ah as an art history professor. The former curator of a well-known Korean art museum, Shin claimed she had earned a Ph.D. from Yale and presented a seemingly Yale-authored letter confirming her credentials to Dongguk during the hiring process.
Yale officials now assert that Shin forged the letter, but when Dongguk asked Graduate School Associate Dean Pamela Schirmeister to verify its authenticity, she responded by fax on Sept. 22.
“As requested I am confirming that the attached letter was issued by the Yale Graduate School and signed by me,” she wrote.
Schirmeister has declined to comment on the case throughout its development.
Dongguk claimed in its lawsuit that the confirmation amounted to negligence, but in the explanation of his new standard of proof, Melançon said “a failure to investigate by itself is not enough to prove actual malice” unless the failure was a willful avoidance of the truth. Schirmeister’s mistaken confirmation did not meet that standard, he said.
Yale eventually identified the doctorate as a forgery in 2007 — though the document purported to be awarded in 2005, its presidential signature belonged to Howard Lamar, interim University president in 1993. Still, the University denied it sent the 2005 fax confirming the fake degree and claimed it never even received a message from Dongguk requesting its confirmation.
Dongguk received heavy criticism in the South Korean media as a result. Later, the Buddhist institution claimed Yale’s refusal to admit its mistake amounted to defamation. In its original complaint filed in 2008, Dongguk claimed it was “publicly humiliated and deeply shamed in the eyes of the Korean population” because of the Shin scandal.
“In Asia, face is everything,” Ira Grudberg ’57 LAW ’60, a New Haven-based attorney who initially represented Dongguk, said in March 2008. “Dongguk was excoriated by the Korean press for this. They feel it has been an immense blow to their standing in the community and their reputation.”
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 because of Yale’s negligence.
But Melançon ruled that a defendant’s refusal to admit that an allegedly defamatory statement was inaccurate “does not establish that he realized the inaccuracy at the time of publication,” so Yale’s actions did not satisfy the legal definition of malice.
Melançon then dismissed the case, arguing that “there could be but one verdict that a jury of reasonable persons could reach: a verdict in favor of Yale and against Dongguk on all of Dongguk’s remaining claims.”
“We are very pleased with Judge Melançon’s decision dismissing the case. We have always believed that this case was without legal merit,” University spokesman Tom Conroy said in a Monday email.
Robert Weiner, an attorney representing Dongguk, said that he and his legal team were “extremely surprised” at the decision and that they planned to review it, according to the Associated Press. Weiner did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Before Shin’s degree was found to be fraudulent, she landed several prestigious jobs in South Korea with her forged credentials. She served as the curator of a celebrated South Korean art museum and as the director of a well-known art exhibition. Shin admitted in 2007 that she had had an affair with a top aide to the president of South Korea, who was married at the time.
Shin was convicted of forging her Yale degree, along with two others from the University of Kansas, and served 18 months in prison.