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Don't Like Your Grade? Sue Your Law SchoolUnhappy law students are heading to court with disputes over grades, readmissions and administrators' conduct
Call it practical training or a ripple effect from the surge in law school tuition and fees. Whatever the reason, students' legal actions against their law schools are piling up. The disputes underlying the lawsuits involve everything from exam grades to readmission policies to administrators' conduct. One of the bigger lawsuits: a $120 million class action alleging fraud, racketeering and false representation to the ABA.
The National Law Journal2007-12-18 12:00:00 AM
Call it practical training.
Unhappy with their exam grades, their law schools' readmission policies and even administrators' conduct, a number of law students have sued their law schools in recent months.
A group of students filed a $120 million class action against the American Justice School of Law in Paducah, Ky., on Nov. 17, citing allegations that include tax fraud, false representation to the American Bar Association, racketeering, scheming to defraud students and obstruction of justice. Rust v. American Justice School of Law, No. 5:07CV-191-R (W.D. Ky.).
Late last month, Adam Key, a second-year law student, sued Regent University School of Law, a private Christian school in Virginia Beach, Va., claiming violations of his right to free speech and religion after getting expelled for posting a critique in an online university forum. Key v. Regent University, No. 4:07-CV-04060 (S.D. Texas).
On Nov. 14, John Valente, a second-year student at University of Dayton School of Law in Ohio, filed a complaint against his school, citing negligence in dealing with exam software. Valente v. University of Dayton Law School of Law, No. 07-9593 (Montgomery Co., Ohio, Ct. C.P.).
MORE AT STAKE?
Because of increasing costs of law schools, some students may be more likely to challenge issues that get in the way of their degrees, said David Van Zandt, dean of Northwestern University School of Law and president of the American Law Deans Association.
"It certainly is understandable if it's happening because the cost of education is going up," he said. "From some of the [lawsuit] examples, the students seem to be challenging something that is very important to them because their place in school has an impact on their job later."
The average annual cost of tuition and fees at a public law school surged by 140 percent during the past 10 years, from about $6,000 in 1996 to about $14,250 in 2006, according to the American Bar Association. The cost of private law schools increased by about 70 percent, from about $17,800 in 1996 to $30,500 in 2006.
Officials from several organizations -- such as the ABA, the National Association of College and University Attorneys and the National Association for Law Placement -- said they do not keep track of lawsuits against law schools, and could not say if there is an uptick.
Carl Monk, executive director of the Association of American Law Schools, said the recent spike in suits may be a coincidence.
"I would tend to think that more likely it's one month or a few months in which a few were filed," Monk said
Whatever the reason, the suits are piling up -- and law schools are busy dealing with them.
American Justice School of Law officials did not return calls and e-mails about their case. But according to one news report, attorneys for the school have proposed a settlement to the students, including creation of a new board of directors to hire a new dean.
Valente, the student who filed the action against the University of Dayton School of Law, alleges that some students used a loophole that allowed them to transfer answers to the test, thereby negatively affecting his grade and preventing him for competing for a position on the University of Dayton Law Review.
John Hart, general counsel at Dayton Law School, said the school will soon file a response to Valente's suit.
Hart said it is still uncommon for students to sue their law schools. "In my over 20 years here as general counsel, it's not the first time, but it's pretty rare that students sue their institution," he said.
On Oct. 10, Clayton Hallford, a former first-year student at Florida A&M University College of Law in Orlando, filed a lawsuit claiming that one of his professors used questions from a commercial test guide in an exam, putting him and others without the guide at a disadvantage. Hallford also challenges the grading policy used, citing those issues as reasons behind his academic dismissal. Hallford v. Florida A&M College of Law, No. 2007-CA-01307 (Orange Co., Fla., Cir. Ct.).
Hallford's lawyer, David Maxwell of Orlando's Law Offices of David Maxwell, did not return a call seeking comment. Rick Mitchell, a shareholder in the Orlando office of GrayRobinson who is representing the school officials being sued, said the school plans to file a motion to dismiss the case this week.
Also last month, Lisa Dawn Rittenhouse filed a lawsuit against Southern Illinois University School of Law in Carbondale after she was told not to return for her second year because her first-year grade-point average was 1.948, just below the minimum 1.95 needed to continue.
Rittenhouse, who is white and has learning disabilities, claims that she was discriminated against while minority students without handicaps who had lower averages were allowed to return. Rittenhouse v. Southern Illinois University School of Law, No. 07-CV-00763-MJR-PMP (S.D. Ill.).
Darrell Dunham, a Carbondale attorney representing Rittenhouse, declined to comment. So did Rod Sievers, the law school's spokesman.