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Student takes his C to federal court

Judge dismisses suit against UMass

In his lawsuit, Brian Marquis contended the university violated his civil rights and contractual rights. In his lawsuit, Brian Marquis contended the university violated his civil rights and contractual rights. (STEPHEN ROSE FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE)

Plenty of college students grumble when they get a mediocre grade and feel that they deserved better. When Brian Marquis got a C instead of an A-minus at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, he made a federal case of it.

Literally.

Marquis, a 51-year-old paralegal seeking bachelor's degrees in legal studies and sociology, filed a 15-count lawsuit in US District Court in Springfield in January after a teaching assistant graded a political philosophy class on a curve and turned Marquis's A-minus into a C. Marquis contends that the university violated his civil rights and contractual rights and intentionally inflicted "emotional distress."

Last week, after a brief hearing with Marquis and a university lawyer, District Court Judge Michael A. Ponsor dismissed the suit. But Marquis said this week he is considering appealing to the US Court of Appeals for the First Circuit.

"This is not something I relish," he said from the W.E.B. Du Bois Library on campus. "This is not an issue of me walking into court and saying, 'I don't like the way this professor grades this paper,' which is purely their academic prerogative. This is an issue where the empirical data was quite clear and convincing to any reasonable mind that my performance was well within a higher range."

Phillip Bricker, chairman of the philosophy department and one of eight defendants in the suit, said it had already caused enough damage. "I think suing over a grade is somewhat absurd," he said. "It ended up just wasting a lot of people's time and money."

In an era when the courts are asked to decide who owns a record-setting home run ball and who is to blame when a cup of hot coffee from a fast-food restaurant scalds a person, it seems perhaps only modestly surprising that a grade dispute leads to litigation.

But Catharine Porter, the UMass-Amherst ombudsman and a defendant in the suit, said that Marquis's complaint was the only one she was aware of over a disputed grade in 30 years at the university. He got the C in a class called "Problems in Social Thought," which explored the works of theorists such as Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and Karl Marx.

"If every student that didn't like his or her grade started to do this, we'd have to hire, I don't know, 25,000 attorneys," Porter said.

Ada Meloy - general counsel for the American Council on Education, which represents more than 1,600 college and university presidents - said such suits are rare and almost never successful. Generally, the complaints reflect an unrealistic fear that a single grade can torpedo academic or professional goals, she said.

Marquis - who salts his comments with "strike that" - acknowledged he was alarmed the C might lower his grade point average and make him less attractive to a law school.

The C has rendered his transcript a "dismal record of non-achievement," his suit said. Marquis, who enrolled at UMass-Amherst in spring 2006, said he has roughly a B-plus average.

His chief adversary in the suit was Jeremy Cushing, a graduate student in philosophy and teaching assistant who is about half his age. He did not respond to interview requests.

At the start of the semester last fall, Marquis said, Cushing told the class that students would take three tests, each worth 25 percent of the final grade, for a total of 75 percent. Four papers, each worth 5 percent, would comprise 20 percent of the grade. Class participation would decide the rest.

Based on that formula, Marquis figured he scored a 92.5 percent, or an A-minus. But when the Lanesborough resident checked his grade online in early January, he saw a C and e-mailed Cushing to complain.

Cushing wrote back that he graded the students more stringently on the third exam because they had had a full semester to learn how to write for a philosophy class. As a result, Cushing wrote, Marquis got an 84 for the class. But the students' numerical scores struck Cushing as too high, so he graded everyone on a curve before assigning letter grades. Marquis ended up with a C.

"As I am entering grades, I consider whether or not they seem fair," he wrote Marquis. ". . . I thought your grade was a good reflection of your work."

Marquis e-mailed Porter, the ombudsman. But she said faculty have their own grading scales and that one professor might view an 84 as an A-minus, while another might view it as a C.

"I urge you to accept this grade and continue on with your course work, as there are no grounds for an academic grievance," she wrote.

Less than three weeks later, Marquis filed suit.

Peter Michelson, a lawyer for the university, urged Judge Ponsor to dismiss it, saying Marquis had failed to present a single legitimate legal claim.

He also focused on public policy, asking, "Does the court really want to put itself in the business of reviewing, under some constitutional or federal statutory doctrine, the propriety of the grades which a student has received?"

Ponsor gave his answer last Wednesday from the bench: No.

Jonathan Saltzman can be reached at jsaltzman@globe.com.

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