By Cary Mills
Ryerson won’t settle in the largest lawsuit to ever be threatened against the university; a class-action application that hopes to make the university pay out $10 million in damages. The statement of claim alleges Ryerson breaches its own academic conduct policy, which deals with students who are accused of cheating and plagiarism. “This is just one side, it’s one story and you don’t have to prove anything to file a statement of claim” said Julia Hanigsberg, Ryerson’s general counsel. The claim was filed on behalf of Chris Avenir, a third-year electrical engineering student who was almost expelled for running a Facebook study group in 2008. “Everyone’s thinking it’s just kind of a cheap shot at Ryerson for damages,” Avenir said. “But that’s not the main issue here.” “It’s not regarding any of the individual cases whatsoever. It’s just the procedure we’re concerned about.” The statement of claim says Ryerson denies students legal representation before academic misconduct appeals reach the Senate, where students can be expelled or suspended. It suggests hearings should follow the provincial Statutory Procedure Act. The plaintiff maintains the act was violated since students aren’t allowed to be represented by lawyers in the earlier stages of misconduct appeals. Ryerson’s online version says only Senate appeals fall under the act. Currently, the school allows use of students’ union advocates if appeals reach the Academic Integrity Council. “We are confident in our policies and procedures and we know that they’re fair,” said Hanigsberg, who said she was surprised when she was served on behalf of Ryerson. Avenir is asking for $250,000 in punitive damages. The statement of claim alleges he suffered “significant emotional and/or mental distress.” None of the allegations have been proven in court. “I think we should have somebody to defend us,” said a third-year civil engineering student, who dropped a liberal class this semester after being accused of academic misconduct. The student, who wished to remain anonymous, said he would’ve appealed if the course was mandatory and would have wanted a lawyer. “It’s important to give the job to someone who is experienced, who knows how to handle the situation,” he said. Liana Salvador, Ryerson Students’ Union (RSU) vice-president education, said advocates know the university’s procedures well since they only work here. But Salvador said there are problems with the appeal process overall. “It’s unclear to me the reason the university is outright denying students access to a lawyer,” Salvador said. Both York University and the University of Toronto let students use lawyers before appeals reach Senate, which is the highest level of appeal. A judge needs to determine if the claim can proceed as a class action. If approved, every student who has gone through Ryerson academic misconduct tribunals since March 2003 could be included. Avenir’s lawyer, John Adair, created the Facebook group “Ryerson University Class Action” for potential class members. He refused to comment on the case. Determining the class might not be easy, according to Joel Rochon, a partner of Rochon Genova LLP. “It’s always easier to do a case that has been done many times before but it’s not to say that this case does not have merit,” said Rochon. He said the damages could change during the case as well. Hanigsberg said the university’s legal costs, including representation and damages, will be covered by insurance.