A civil lawsuit was filed by UC Berkeley student Ronald Rivers on Jan. 18 against the UC Board of Regents and UC Berkeley for the alleged “intentional or negligent infliction of emotional distress caused by the false accusation of plagiarism.”
According to the lawsuit, Rivers was accused of plagiarism while taking a campus sociology course during the 2018 summer session. Rivers’ Graduate Student Instructor, or GSI, Serena Witherspoon contacted Rivers via email July 15 alleging that a large percentage of River’s paper had been plagiarized.
According to campus Teaching and Resource Center guidelines for GSIs, the GSI has six steps to take if they suspect a student has committed academic misconduct. One of the steps laid out by the guidelines is to “show the student the evidence and the Code of Conduct section that was violated.”
According to the lawsuit, Rivers attempted to schedule a time to meet with Witherspoon to discuss the test in question, but before the two successfully scheduled a time to meet, Witherspoon informed Rivers that he would fail the assignment. Rivers alleged in the lawsuit that Witherspoon and the course instructor did not present him with evidence that he committed academic misconduct before punishing him.
The lawsuit said Rivers met with Josephine Chiang, a caseworker at the Student Advocate’s Office, on Aug. 1. According to the lawsuit, Chiang allegedly conveyed that “it was important that (Rivers) did not fight the accusation of plagiarism because he would not win it” and advised him to talk to his instructor.
The lawsuit also said Rivers met with campus professor Lindsay Berkowitz, the course’s instructor, a day later to explain that the incident was due to a misunderstanding of assignment instructions, not plagiarism. According to the lawsuit, Berkowitz allowed Rivers to retake the exam; however, she told him that she would take 40 percent off of whatever grade he received.
A formal complaint was filed with the Vice Chancellor’s Office on Sept. 3, according to the lawsuit. The lawsuit stated that acting Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs Stephen Sutton and his assistant Kenneth Montgomery dismissed the formal complaint, allegedly causing Rivers “severe emotional distress.”
On Nov. 14, Rivers met with campus professor Laura Enriquez, the director of undergraduate studies in the sociology department, according to the lawsuit. During the meeting, Enriquez allegedly threatened Rivers by saying, “Don’t let this get in the way of your current studies or furthering your education.” The lawsuit said Rivers allegedly “suffered great anxiety and depression … and was made to believe that it would become an adverse mark of his permanent academic record.”
The lawsuit also said Rivers communicated with Sandra Smith, chair of the sociology department Dec. 19 via email to inquire about the best way to submit a grade appeal. Smith allegedly responded saying that “the evidence of plagiarism seems pretty clear.” According to the lawsuit, Rivers interpreted that Smith spoke about the incident with Berkowitz and Enriquez beforehand and believes that Smith did not give him due process of initiating the case by allowing him to submit a grade appeal. The formal grade appeal was filed Jan. 7.
Campus spokespeople and the individuals involved in the lawsuit declined to comment, and the UC Office of the President spokespeople have not responded as of press time.