When prominent Washington attorney Nathan Lewin read a letter from Columbia University chastising his daughter Alyza, he did what comes naturally to dads. He defended her.

He helped her file suit against the university for $10.5 million.

But last Friday the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals took the university's side in this unusual court battle by dismissing the defamation claim brought by the younger Lewin in 1984. Although the court's decision was on technical grounds, the three-judge panel took pains to note that the case was an example of "a disturbing and growing tendency to rush to the courthouse when faced with the slightest adversity."

Lewin, a former student at Holton Arms School in Bethesda, was accepted in 1983 by Columbia and Princeton universities but deferred entering either school to spend a year in Israel, according to the suit. In January 1984, she decided she wanted to go to Princeton; her father wrote to Columbia that she had "other plans."

Columbia responded by writing a letter to Lewin, her high school and Princeton, telling the teen-ager that she had not lived up to her agreement with Columbia, that she had hurt the chances of others trying to gain admission and that she should "conduct her personal affairs in a more straightforward fashion in the future," the suit said.

Nathan Lewin, a well-known lawyer currently representing Attorney General Edwin Meese III in a probe of alleged corruption at Wedtech Corp., shot back a seven-page letter to Columbia.

His daughter's reputation had been hurt by Columbia's letter, he said, as well as her chances of eventually becoming a lawyer. The younger Lewin then filed suit for $5.5 million in compensatory damages and $5 million in punitive damages.

A lower court dismissed the suit, saying a university in New York should not be sued in Maryland. Lewin appealed and the appeals court decided late last week that the "interest of justice" required dismissal.

The appeals panel ruled that Lewin, now a Princeton undergraduate, accepted admission at both universities knowing that she couldn't attend both schools at the same time "and yet, when Columbia complained about her actions, she was offended to the point of filing suit in federal court."

"We sense misplaced priorities in these events," the court said.