Penn State professor fired for plagiarism loses appeal in defamation case against university

By Jon Campisi | Oct 11, 2013

A state appellate court panel has affirmed a Northeastern Pennsylvania

trial judge’s decision to grant summary judgment to Penn State University in the case of an alleged defamed former professor.

In a non-precedential decision filed on Oct. 9, the three-judge Pennsylvania Superior Court panel upheld a June 29, 2012, Luzerne County Court of Common Pleas decision dismissing a case against Penn State and two individuals over allegations that the defendants defamed Mohamad Nouri when he attempted to seek employment elsewhere following his termination.

News reports show that Nouri, of McLean, Va., was fired in the spring of 2004 – he began teaching at Penn State back in 1988 – after it was discovered that he had plagiarized the work of colleagues and students.

In his lawsuit, Nouri claimed that after his firing, he attempted to secure a professorship position at Catholic University of America, only to learn that Penn State officials, in a phone conversation with representatives of Catholic University, defamed his character and caused Catholic University to refuse Nouri’s employment.

Nouri went on to sue Penn State, as well as Rodney Erickson, who was then vice provost of the university’s Wilkes-Barre, Pa. campus, and chancellor Mary Hines.

The suit contained claims of negligent and intentional infliction of emotional distress, as well as tortious interference with contractual relations.

Nouri initially filed his complaint in late January 2007, but a trial judge, in sustaining defense preliminary objections, subsequently dismissed the case and granted the plaintiff 20 days by which to file a second amended complaint.

The former professor filed his second amended complaint in mid-April of that year, the record shows, and discovery soon commenced.

At the conclusion of discovery, attorneys representing the defendants filed a motion for summary judgment, arguing that the trial court must dismiss all of the claims with prejudice because Mary Hines was not employed by Penn State during the time in question, Penn State and Erickson were immune from liability under state statute, and Nouri’s claims independently failed as a matter of law.

A trial judge ultimately agreed with the defense and dismissed the suit in its entirety.

News reports said that Luzerne County Common Pleas Court Judge Lesa Gelb dismissed the litigation because Nouri was unable to present evidence backing his claim that the school acted in bad faith when it fired him.

Media reports also stated that Gelb, in her opinion, pointed to pre-trial evidence that showed John Convey, the provost at Catholic University, actually learned about Nouri’s firing and the plagiarism that led up to it through news articles and not firsthand through conversations with Penn State representatives.

Nouri appealed the trial court’s ruling in late August of last year arguing that discovery was incomplete at the time of judgment and that similar defense motions for summary judgment were denied by a previous trial court judge pending the discovery and production of documents that the defendants allegedly refused to provide in violation of court order.

The plaintiff also attempted to argue that the trial court improperly granted judgment to the defendants despite an issue of material fact regarding testimony involving the claim of intentional interference with a contractual relationship, and that the judge improperly granted judgment on the claim of tortious interference with a contract where evidence existed that could form a legal basis for a verdict on behalf of Nouri, according to the Superior Court memorandum.

The plaintiff ended up losing on a legal technicality, because, as the Superior Court judges wrote, Nouri failed to raise the appeals issues in his court-ordered Rule 1925(b) statement that he had previously filed.

Under court rules, issues that are not included in such a statement are deemed waived.

In affirming the trial court ruling, the Superior Court panel also denied as moot the defendants’ motion to dismiss the appeal.

The decision was written by Judge Judith Ference Olson.

The other participating judges were Sallie Updyke Mundy and Eugene Strassburger.

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