047: First in Line

Stella Case No. 047, Originally Published: 7 May 2003

It may not be a big surprise that Moorestown, N.J., high school senior Blair L. Hornstine, 18, wants to be a lawyer. She’s clearly a good student: her grade point average is 4.6894, including 23 A+ grades — the highest at her school. She scored 1,570 (out of 1,600) on her SAT (previously known as the Scholastic Aptitude Test), and was accepted by a distinguished roster of top universities, including Harvard, Stanford, Princeton, Duke and Cornell. She chose Harvard.

hornstine wikipedia 300x158 - 047: First in Line
I’ll bet not many high schoolers’ lawsuits against their schools have their own Wikipedia entry, but Blair’s does.

But Moorestown High School Superintendent Paul Kadri thought that that two other students should also be eligible to be named valedictorian since Hornstine had an “unfair advantage” over the other students — Hornstine is disabled with a type of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. Because of that, she was exempt from some of the classes other students had to take, such as physical education, which counted less for grade-point calculations. She was also allowed to take some of her classes at home, which meant she was not “subject to the rigorous in-school grading standards employed by certain advanced placement teachers” as were the two other students, who had near-perfect grades. And, finally, she also got individualized attention from teachers, and extra time to take tests.

“After reviewing these issues, I was concerned about the fundamental fairness of the academic competition engaged in for the valedictorian and salutatorian awards,” Kadri said. Thus, he concluded, “The level field of competition … had been compromised” to give Hornstine an edge. His suggestion: the school should name Hornstine and the other two students as “co-valedictorians.”

Nothing doing, Hornstine said: she filed a discrimination suit in federal court asking for an order preventing the school from naming anyone but the student with the highest grade point average as valedictorian.

“Not only does the conferral of co-valedictorian inaccurately suggest that Blair Hornstine was not at the top of her class,” her suit argued, “but under the circumstances under which it is being conferred, it actually raises a derogatory implication that her superior performance is not what it seems.”

Oh, and she’d also like $2.7 million, please — $200,000 in compensation for her “humiliation” and $2.5 million in punitive damages, payable to her from the taxpayers in the school district.

John Comegno, the school’s attorney, argued that Hornstine would not suffer any loss by being named co-valedictorian. “She might be asked to share a stage, nothing more,” he said. “We’re just asking the court to level the playing field.”

Hornstine’s fellow students were behind the school, and called her “selfish.” The Philadelphia Inquirer newspaper editorialized, “There’s a saying that everything we need to know we learned in kindergarten. Blair Hornstine of Moorestown must not have been paying attention the day her class learned about playing well with others.” It called her “Little Miss Perfect” and “a petty crybaby,” and wondered what lesson she was learning by suing — “That overcoming a disability and making it to the top is only worth celebrating if you’re up there alone?” Tough words from a big newspaper to a young woman, but an accurate reflection of the community’s feelings.

Ignoring public sentiment, U.S. District Court Judge Freda Wolfson agreed with Hornstine and ordered the school to name her the sole valedictorian. She said the school violated the girl’s civil rights with its “strange and relentless” effort to discredit her. “If forced to share the award, the stigma would likely be unshakable,” Wolfson ruled. “She would be seen as ‘the disabled valedictorian’, not ‘the valedictorian’.”

A trial to determine any monetary damages was set for later.

By demanding a huge economic windfall in her suit, Hornstine showed that her case wasn’t so much about principle as profit. Instead of championing the rights of the disabled, she showed more that the disabled are on a par with everyone else in the greed department. Sadly, she won’t be remembered for her very real scholastic accomplishments, but rather as a brat who got where she is by suing — she won’t be remembered as “the disabled valedictorian” because she won’t even be remembered as any sort of valedictorian; rather, she’ll simply be known as “the girl that sued.”

She may have won in federal court, but in the eyes of the Court of Public Opinion she’s a loser indeed — and so are thousands of other hard-working disabled students who just want to be recognized as regular human beings.

Sources

  • “Student Sues over Top Title,” Philadelphia Inquirer, 2 May 2003
  • “Disabled S. Jersey Senior Is Ruled Sole Valedictorian,” Philadelphia Inquirer, 9 May 2003
  • “Student’s Lawsuit Shows Lack of Class,” Philadelphia Inquirer (editorial), 3 May 2003

Case Status

“The stigma would be unshakable,” the judge ruled in this case. How prophetic those words were. The Hornstine case is an excellent case study in how things can go wrong for a plaintiff, even when she wins.

First, it was revealed that during her high school career, Hornstine wrote six articles for the Cherry Hill (N.J.) Courier-Post newspaper, and all but one, the newspaper said after reviewing them, contained plagiarized material.

Hornstine’s articles “had information from sources that was not properly attributed,” the paper said in an Editor’s Note to its readers. “The articles and essays had passages and themes from online sources that were not identified.” It said that Hornstine copied passages from a U.S. Supreme Court opinion, writings from Supreme Court Justice William Brennan, portions of two proclamations by President Bill Clinton, and sections from other sources.

The stories ran under Hornstine’s byline, implying she had written the words herself. “The Courier-Post’s Principles of Ethical Conduct for the Newsroom calls for proper attribution of specific language taken from another source and used in the newspaper,” the editor told readers.

In her defense, Hornstine argued that “All knowledge is constructed upon scholarship bequeathed to us by past generations,” but acknowledged the “importance” of citing the work of others. She said in school she learned to do that using end notes or footnotes and thought “news articles didn’t require as strict citation scrutiny as most school assignments because there was no place for footnotes or end notes.”

Naturally, one of Hornstine’s lawyers jumped into the act to point out that she “was not provided with a copy of the Courier-Post’s Principles of Ethical Conduct,” as if a Senior honors student wouldn’t already know it was wrong to plagiarize.

Moorestown N.J. School Superintendent Paul Kadri said he couldn’t comment on Hornstine’s plagiarism, or whether the school would review her academic work to check for plagiarism, because her $2.7 million civil suit was still pending. However, he did say all students “should know to give proper attribution in their work” — just as Hornstine admits. In her lawsuits, Hornstine insisted that the school followed its rules to the letter so that she would be named the school’s sole valedictorian. But apparently that’s not so important when the rules apply to her.

Sadly, the notoriety was too much for Hornstine: despite her victory awarding her sole valedictorian status, she decided not to attend her graduation after all. Her lawyer, Edwin Jacobs, told the school that this was because “The hostile environment at the school has traumatized Blair both physically and emotionally, to the point that she cannot and will not attend the graduation ceremonies.” He further asked the school to “Please arrange to have the valedictorian award made to her in absentia,” apparently forgetting that the primary duty of a valedictorian is to give a speech to the graduating class.

The Philadelphia Daily News noted, “The court victory guaranteed that Hornstine, 17, would be the one and only valedictorian at Moorestown. But it has also given rise to an ugly backlash in the court of public opinion that has shamed and cracked the veneer of civility in the quaint, affluent town.” Further proof indeed that it’s a very bad idea to show contempt for the “Court of Public Opinion.”

More to the point, is such sloppy attribution the mark of a scholar? Harvard didn’t think so: it rescinded her acceptance to the university. Harvard officials refused to discuss “specific applicants,” but a spokesman noted the school has a right to rescind admission to students who exhibit “behavior that brings into question your honesty, maturity, or moral character.” Apparently, plagiarism by a supposedly top student isn’t evidence of the “honesty, maturity and moral character” Harvard seeks. Perhaps also a history of suing one’s school in a fit of self-righteous indignation was another point against her.

By August of her graduation year Hornstine had settled her suit, wrangling $60,000 from her school. Her lawyers’ fees: $45,000. Her net take-away for ruining her reputation, becoming an international laughingstock, making enemies of all of her classmates, and losing her spot at Harvard: $15,000. She was so despised for her suit she didn’t attend her own graduation, and thus didn’t fulfill her primary responsibility as valedictorian.

But that $15,000 is before taxes. Doug Thorburn, an Enrolled Agent (tax specialist) in California, says she indeed has to pay taxes on the winnings:

…“but not on the $15,000; she has to declare the entire $60K judgment as income! And even worse, attorney’s fees for such lawsuits are not deductible for purposes of calculating the Alternative Minimum Tax (AMT) in some Circuit Court of Appeal districts, including hers. In almost every situation and tax bracket, Hornstine would fail to receive the benefit of most of a disallowed-for-AMT deduction as large as this.

“In fact, for many, the deduction would save nothing. Assuming Hornstine has no other income or deductions (which, as a student, is reasonably likely), the AMT would be $5,135 vs. a regular tax of $1,443. Therefore, her overall net compensation would be $9,685 — $15,000 minus $5,135. But if she’s in the maximum combined federal/New Jersey state income tax brackets and the legal fees don’t help as a deduction, she’ll pay $24,840 in income tax, for a net loss of $9,480.

“The good news from her point of view is that many believe the IRS position on the deductibility of attorney’s fees incurred for the production of such income to be wrong-headed. The issue is long overdue for a Supreme Court review. However, occasionally an unjust interpretation of tax law provides a measure of justice in areas we wouldn’t expect, including that of most lawsuits deserving of a Stella Award in which the plaintiff wins.”

So congratulations to Blair: after a several-month fight, she “won.” Whoopie. Is it really prognostication to say that her next trip to court may be to fight the IRS?

Sources:

  • “Stories, Essays Lacked Attribution,” Cherry Hill Courier-Post, 3 June 2003
  • “A Valedictorian Is Confronted by a Fresh Difficulty,” Philadelphia Inquirer, 5 June 2003
  • “Court-ordered Valedictorian Will Skip Graduation,” Philadelphia Daily News, 11 June 2003
  • “Harvard Bids Bye-bye to Blair,” Philadelphia Daily News, 12 July 2003
  • “Hornstine Settles Suit Against Moorestown School District,” Philadelphia Inquirer, 19 August 2003
  • E-mail interview with Doug Thorburn, EA

My 2020 Thoughts on the Case

With Blair not going to graduation after all, my conclusion, “she won’t even be remembered as any sort of valedictorian; rather, she’ll simply be known as the ‘girl that sued’,” seems to be right on.

hornstine hornstine hornstine 230x300 - 047: First in LineShe apparently* put up a web site to archive and talk about her case …in the third person (see snippet, right). It’s no longer online, but available at the Internet Archive. She also apparently* had a Tumblr blog, where her bio reveals she attended the University of St. Andrews in Scotland**, where she was presumably not infamous, and after earning her Master’s Degree (in Classical Studies… “with distinction”), she returned to the U.S. to study music and singing at the Juilliard School from 2006 to 2007. “She is currently studying to become a lawyer.” There are no posts after 2008.

*(“Apparently” because I can’t be totally positive she was behind either site, though the Tumblr blog does link to the web site.)

**Personal irony: I also attended a brief summer session at the University of St. Andrews, right after graduating high school.

Another irony: on the day that Harvard announced it was reviewing “several” admissions to the Class of 2007 (and Blair Hornstine’s was obviously one of them), her older brother, Adam, graduated from Harvard — the Law School. He also was named valedictorian at Moorestown High School.

Their father is Louis Hornstine; at the time, he was a Superior Court Judge in Camden County, N.J. He is no longer listed on the New Jersey Courts web site: he retired and went into private practice. One of the other attorneys at the Hornstine law firm in Philadelphia: his daughter, Blair. She graduated from William and Mary School of Law in May 2010. She certainly has repeatedly proven she has perseverance.

The mail was crushing on this case, but I noted very few readers bothered to consult a dictionary. Webster’s defines valedictorian as “One who pronounces a valedictory address; especially, in American colleges, the student who pronounces the valedictory of the graduating class at the annual commencement, usually the student who ranks first in scholarship.”

In other words, it’s not necessarily the student with the highest GPA — “scholarship” is about “The character and qualities of a scholar.” Will the school be proud to remember Blair’s time there? Unlikely. Her “only I get the spotlight or I’ll sue for millions” attitude seems to say more about her character than her grades. More in the next case’s Letters section.

Letters

Chris in Florida: “I think you’re way off the mark. I am a smoker, and became one of my own volition. Joe Camel did not come to my house, tie me to a chair, and force me to take up smoking — yet, if/when I become ill (and indigent), Joe Camel is expected to pay for it. The tobacco companies have indeed increased nicotine levels, just like any other manufacturer tampers with their own product to make it more appealing to the masses. In my mind, tobacco lawsuits are no different than the idiots suing McDonald’s because they’re fat. Too much of anything will kill you — not just cigarettes. It’s just a matter of time before one of these lawsuits gets to trial.

“It’s just a matter of time before someone successfully sues Jack Daniel’s or Smirnoff or Budweiser because of their cirrhosis. Yet you have declared tobacco the new evil empire — and in your very next breath, belittle the Scottish hunter who didn’t know enough to use the proper ammunition for hunting lion. Just as the hunter should have known that he was using the wrong ammo, each of us knows the dangers of smoking. If we’re not smart enough or self-disciplined enough to avoid excess, then it’s our own responsibility.”

I agree some suits against the tobacco industry are frivolous (Really? “I didn’t know smoking was bad for me!”?), but I didn’t declare the tobacco companies evil, society did long before I came along. That does not, however, excuse the tobacco industry’s suit against California; indeed it could be argued that the state has a duty to warn its citizens over known health hazards. No doubt you’ve also seen ads that warn against drinking and driving, yet I haven’t seen the liquor industry sue over that.

Mark in Indiana: “I’ve found it amusing the position that States have put themselves in regarding ‘tobacco settlement’ money. It has been widely reported that most states spend only a small fraction of the money received on healthcare and smoking prevention programs; instead, the money is simply used as extra revenue in the state’s general fund. Indiana is proposing selling bonds backed by future settlement payments in order to resolve current budget deficits. So, while the state uses some of the money to encourage citizens not to smoke, it desperately needs new smokers so that the ‘cash cow’ tobacco companies don’t go bankrupt!”

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1 Comment on “047: First in Line

  1. Here in Michigan a few years ago the governor bumped the tax on tobacco products quite a bit. The talk was about the good that could be done with the extra revenue that the huge tax increase would bring in. Surprise !! The revenue went down, because everyone within an hour’s drive of the border or an Indian casino made regular trips to stock up. So, smoking went down slightly and tax revenue went way down. Next step? Bump up the fine on anyone entering the state with more than a single carton of cigarettes to $500 per carton. LEOs really enjoyed going undercover staking out Michigan licensed cars stopping at tobacco outlets in Indiana to catch residents returning to the state with a month’s worth of cigarettes.

    So then the governor announced that the plan succeeded in reducing smoking and therefore illnesses associated with smoking and their costs would be going down. So when your plan fails, change the goal and declare success.

    Reply

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