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DiPerna v. The Chicago School of Professional Psychology

United States Court of Appeals, Seventh Circuit

June 26, 2018

Jennifer DiPerna, Plaintiff-Appellant,
v.
The Chicago School of Professional Psychology, Defendant-Appellee.

          Argued April 19, 2018

          Appeal from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, Eastern Division. No. 1:14-cv-00057 - John Z. Lee, Judge.

          Before Ripple, Manion, and Kanne, Circuit Judges.

          Manion, Circuit Judge.

         Jennifer DiPerna was a student pursuing a master's degree in clinical psychology at The Chicago School of Professional Psychology (TCSPP), a private, non-profit institution. After TCSPP disciplined DiPerna for posting an image to her personal Instagram account that TCSPP considered offensive, DiPerna filed this lawsuit alleging breach of contract and negligence.

         The year after DiPerna filed her complaint, one of her professors accused her of plagiarism. A hearing was held before a school committee, and DiPerna was dismissed. She amended her complaint to include claims related to her dismissal.

         In the proceedings below, DiPerna voluntarily withdrew some of her claims, and the district court granted summary judgment to TCSPP on all the others. DiPerna now challenges the district court's conclusions. We affirm.

         I.

         A. Background

         DiPerna's issues with TCSPP began in the spring of 2013. That semester, DiPerna enrolled in a course titled "Diversity in Clinical Practice." One of the assignments in that course was a group project. DiPerna, a white woman, was in a group with a student named Shakira, [1] a black woman. While they were together, DiPerna and Shakira got into a discussion about "privilege." This discussion prompted Shakira to email their instructor, Dr. Patricia Perez, with "concerns about [DiPerna's] ability to work with clients of a diverse background."[2] When DiPerna's group met with Dr. Perez, DiPerna again got into a discussion about privilege, this time with a different student.

         After these incidents, DiPerna complained to various TCSPP officials that she was the subject of harassment and bullying. She claimed people were calling her "color blind," making comments, and pointing at her. Despite her complaints, TCSPP took no action. DiPerna tried to withdraw from the class, but was told she could not as it was too far into the semester.

         That summer, DiPerna posted an image with a racial slur on her personal Instagram account. Two black students at TCSPP complained to a professor. On August 1, 2013, DiPerna met with Dr. Virginia Quiňonez, Department Chair, and Dr. Luke Mudd, Associate Department Chair. DiPerna defended herself on the grounds that the posting was supposed to be humorous. She also objected to being punished when Shakira, whose posts contained similar language, was not.

         Drs. Quiňonez and Mudd referred DiPerna to the Student Affairs Committee (SAC). After a hearing, the SAC ordered DiPerna to complete an Academic Development Plan (ADP)[3] and delayed her entry into an internship program. Though TCSPP allowed for an internal appeal of that decision, DiPerna did not pursue one. On January 3, 2014, DiPerna filed the instant lawsuit, citing the federal diversity jurisdiction statute and alleging claims for breach of contract and negligence.

         DiPerna continued in school while the lawsuit was pending. In 2015, she took a required seminar course taught by Dr. Kristin Davisson. As part of that course, DiPerna completed a "Clinical Competency Examination" (CCE), which required her to set out a specific psychological theory and discuss how she applied it to her clinical experiences with a patient.

         The portion of the CCE in which she discusses the theory she applied was called the "Conceptualization" or "Case Formulation" section. When Dr. Davisson was reviewing DiPerna's CCE, she began to suspect DiPerna had plagiarized that section. Dr. Davisson noticed the writing style in that section was different from other sections of the paper and from DiPerna's previous work. Dr. Davisson particularly noted it was more sophisticated in word choice and frequency of sources.

         Dr. Davisson's suspicions caused her to input some sentences from the paper as the terms in a Google search. After that search revealed a match, Dr. Davisson decided to run the paper through turnitin.com (Turnitin), a webbased program that compares submitted writings against a database of potential sources. This was the first time Dr. Davisson had used Turnitin in some time.

         Dr. Davisson only had a hard copy of DiPerna's paper, so she personally typed DiPerna's conceptualization section (about two pages of text) into Turnitin. Turnitin returned a 92% similarity score, meaning it concluded 92% of the conceptualization section was similar to material found in other sources. Turnitin provided a list of sources that included psychology publications, a website, and other student papers.

         Dr. Davisson reported these results to then Interim Department Chair Dr. Mudd. Dr. Mudd told Dr. Davisson to request an electronic copy of the paper from DiPerna so that she could run the entire paper through Turnitin, rather than just the one section. Dr. Davisson did so, and that reduced the similarity score to 10%. Nevertheless, the conceptualization section was still extensively flagged. Dr. Mudd performed some independent verification of Turnitin's results and referred DiPerna to the SAC.

         Prior to her hearing before the SAC, DiPerna received notice that nine people would make up the committee. When she showed up for her hearing on May 12, 2015, the committee did not have nine members. Nevertheless, the hearing proceeded. DiPerna argued she was being retaliated against for her lawsuit and that her 10% similarity score was insufficient to ...


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