N.Y. Judge: Father Does Not Have to Pay Ghostwriter for Writing Daughter’s College Application Essay

As a freelance writer, I primarily ghostwrite articles for professional clients. But there is a critical difference between legitimate ghostwriting and committing fraud. For instance, if someone hires you to write their college admissions essay for them, you are effectively helping that person commit fraud against against the school that receives that essay. You may not go to jail for this, but neither is it something that you would chose to highlight on your CV.

Father Claims He Only Asked Ghostwriter to "Edit" Daughter’s Work

And of course, good luck trying to collect an unpaid invoice from a client who hired you to commit fraud in the first place. There was a recent court decision from a New York State small claims court judge, R.R. v. H.S., on just this subject. The defendant in this case hired the plaintiff to "work on" the defendant’s daughter’s college application essays.

The parties never signed a written agreement. According to the plaintiff, the defendant agreed to pay him $125 for each hour that he worked with the defendant’s daughter "in person." If the plaintiff needed to work "independently" by himself, the defendant would pay him $100 per hour.

The plaintiff said he "independently" wrote two essays for the defendant’s daughter, which she then submitted to the University of Georgia using the Common App, an online platform. The Common App is run by a non-profit organization composed of approximately 900 colleges and universities. The Common App requires each student who uses its system to confirm several "affirmation statements," which includes certifying any materials submitted during the application process is their "own work, factually true, and honestly presented."

A guidance counselor at the daughter’s school later informed the defendant that her admission essays were likely not her own work. According to the defendant, the guidance counselor said the essays read like something written by a "40-year old man." The defendant said he later contacted the plaintiff "to express her concerns" that he had ghostwritten the essays for his daughter, as opposed to merely helping her "edit" essays that she wrote herself.

Judge Declines to Enforce "Illegal" Contract

This might have been the end of the matter, except that the plaintiff insisted the defendant pay him $650. The plaintiff said this amount covered the 2 hours he worked with the defendant’s daughter, as well as the 4 hours that he worked independently. When the defendant failed to pay this amount, the plaintiff filed a lawsuit in Nassau County District Court, which handles small claims of up to $5,000 under New York law. In response, the defendant filed a counterclaim for $325, alleging "nonperformance" of the contract by the plaintiff.

Both parties represented themselves in court without an attorney. In November 2019, District Court Judge Scott Fairgreve dismissed both the claim and counterclaim. He followed up with a written opinion issued in March 2020. The judge explained that "both parties are equally at fault," and therefore neither was entitled to any monetary damages from the other.

As Judge Fairgreve saw things, the oral agreement between the plaintiff and the defendant was an "illegal contract." That is to say, the parties "attempted to create a scheme in which they would present the Plaintiff’s work as the work of the Defendant’s daughter." This violated the express terms of the Common App, which the defendant said he understood, and thus had the effect of defrauding the colleges that received the daughter’s ghostwritten essays. Furthermore, the judge noted the parties’ actions defeated the entire purpose of the Common App, which was to "prepare[] students for independence that comes with college" by making them "take responsibility for their work and be proud of their work product."