Advertisement
News

Hopkins wins defamation award Former student and his parents told to pay $75,000

A 38-year-old former student at Johns Hopkins University who had conducted a three-year legal effort to prove that the school defrauded him has instead been ordered to pay, with his parents, $74,800 to university officials for defaming their names.

A federal jury yesterday concluded that Robert Dobkin, who also said the school maligned his name by connecting it with the Unabomber, had negligently published letters falsely accusing two Hopkins officials of fraud and a cover-up.

Advertisement

The letters were mailed to Hillary Clinton, Sen. Robert Dole, Ross Perot and to officials at the National Institutes of Health after Mr. Dobkin failed an oral exam and lost a tuition-paying traineeship.

"I have been premeditatedly annihilated" began many of letters, which became the cardboard centerpieces at the weeklong trial.

Advertisement

The jury awarded nearly $75,000 in damages to faculty member Dr. Pearl German and to Estelle Fishbein, Hopkins vice president and general counsel. In its 1994 counter-suit, the university had sought $12 million.

"The amount wasn't as important as the vindication because it was still important to get their names cleared," said attorney Jeff Ayres, who was hired by the university to represent Dr. German and Ms. Fishbein.

The Dobkins' attorney, Charles Morgan, said his clients were the victims. "Robert dared to challenge this great institution," he said. "We've lost a brilliant young career. It's almost frightening that [the university] would attempt this."

By any standards, this was an unusual lawsuit that began as an DTC academic dispute between one bright student and his adviser. Robert Dobkin, a graduate student in Dr. German's gerontology program, first sued the university in 1993 for $10.5 million, claiming that the university had wrongly administered an oral exam -- among other charges.

Mr. Dobkin had failed a critical exam in 1992, and faculty members removed the student's National Institutes of Health traineeship, which provided tuition. He was still enrolled at Hopkins and could have re-taken the exam.

"He failed a test and then blew everything out of proportion," Mr. Ayres said.

The student wasn't prepared to proceed with doctoral work and needed to know more in key areas of public health, faculty members said. Mr. Dobkin said he was prepared for the oral exam and should have been allowed to maintain his federal traineeship.

For three years, Robert S. Dobkin had wanted his day in court -- and he got a week. But all his suits against the university were dismissed last month by U.S. District Judge John Hargrove. Mr. Dobkin had said Hopkins was guilty of "character assassination" by saying he was a poor student -- and possibly violent.

Advertisement

"He [Mr. Dobkin] couldn't prove they willingly created a correlation between the Unabomber and himself," the judge wrote. Mr. Dobkin's claim that the university broke a contract by not awarding him a doctoral degree was also dismissed.

No such "contract" existed, the court ruled.

After Mr. Dobkin's cases were dismissed, the university proceeded with its defamation suit because of the letters. "It's a case about victims and words," Mr. Ayres said.

"These are serious words. The Dobkins have had their dance, and now it's time for them to pay the fiddler."

Donald and Rosalyn Dobkin, of New Jersey, said they wrote the letters out of frustration. They testified they had looked up "fraud" in Webster's dictionary and thought the word applied to what they felt happened to their son at Hopkins.

"We weren't seeking criminal charges. We were just seeking someone to listen to us," Donald Dobkin testified.

Advertisement

"These letters," his attorney said, "were written to get help. Whether it was misguided or not, it doesn't matter.

"The courtroom is not an ATM machine where you can walk in, say you've been hurt and ask for money."

Ms. Fishbein and Dr. German testified the letters had caused them humiliation, embarrassment and "sleepless nights."

"I've been extremely anguished and distressed by this," Dr. German testified. "My good name is one of my most precious possessions."

Pub Date: 5/04/96


Advertisement