Hot Docs: Lawyer sues law school for defamation over plagiarism claim

May 10, 2012

Plagiarized labelToday’s job market has not been kind to lawyers (but you probably didn’t need me to tell you that).

As difficult as it currently is to find a job as an attorney, imagine trying to find a job with a formal reprimand on your official law school transcript with a letter accompanying it explaining the reprimand is the result of your acts of plagiarism?

Megon Walker has found herself in that exact situation for the past three years.

According to a new lawsuit, though, the law school’s findings of plagiarism are false, and the school didn’t give Walker a fair hearing when making this plagiarism determination.

As such, the complaint charges Walker’s alma mater (which, by the way, is Harvard Law School) with several different contractual tort violations, along with defamation and negligent infliction of emotional distress.

Here’s what happened:

According to the complaint, Walker is a skilled and accomplished lawyer (actually, the complaint spares no words describing just how talented she is).

In the fall semester of Walker’s third-year, she reportedly received offers of full-time employment from both of the law firms at which she had worked as a summer associate – both with starting salaries of $160k.

In December of 2008, “after her professional future was thus well settled with high promise,” Walker volunteered to write a law article for Harvard’s Journal of Law and Technology (JOLT).

On February 15, 2009, one week before the draft article was due, Walker’s laptop computer contracted a virus and she was unable to access her computer normally thereafter.

With the help of the school’s computer help desk, Walker was able to retrieve some of the work on the article previously stored on her computer, but only in “incomplete portions.”

When other efforts to eliminate the virus failed, the computer’s hard drive had to be wiped clean – and Walker’s draft JOLT article along with it.

What Walker actually managed to salvage of her article lacked all of the citations to the source material.

Hot Doc: Walker v. Harvard Law School

Source: Thomson Reuters News & Insight – National Litigation

According to the complaint, Walker communicated with several different JOLT staff members about what had happened in the hopes that she could still produce her article for publication.

During these and subsequent communications, Walker allegedly conveyed repeatedly that what she was submitting to JOLT was not a final draft, but only what she could recover from her virus-infected hard drive.

At some point during this editorial process, the two editors-in-chief of JOLT, apparently taking Walker’s article as a final draft – informed Harvard’s administrative board that Walker had plagiarized in her article by not giving proper credit to the sources used in her article.

The administrative board made a finding that Walker had plagiarized in her article, and the school put a formal reprimand on Walker’s official transcript and placed a letter in her official record stating that she had “plagiarized” her work from other sources.

As a result, Walker’s job offer was revoked, and she has been unable to find employment since.

That’s some tough luck, but will Walker’s luck turn around with this lawsuit?

Though the outcome of the suit hinges on several factors, the single most important issue is whether there is actual evidence that Walker clearly informed JOLT editorial staff members that the article she was submitting was not a final draft, and that she explained the lack of citations.

While it may seem awfully coincidental that the article’s citations were lost due to the virus, this occurrence is entirely conceivable since, according to the complaint, the citations were in footnote form.

In most word processing programs, the data for footnotes is stored separately from the actual text of the document, and is far less recognizable during data recovery.

There are, of course, plenty of other evidentiary hurdles for Walker to overcome with this lawsuit.

However, considering that the removal of the reprimand from her school records could very well save her legal career, the effort will be well worth it.