Are prospective law students savvy, college-educated consumers or naive twenty-somethings easily taken in by rosy employment projections?
That question was one of several before New York County, N.Y., Supreme Court Judge Melvin Schweitzer during a two-hour hearing on March 12. The state trial judge was considering a motion to dismiss a lawsuit brought by nine graduates of New York Law School against their alma mater.
The plaintiffs, seeking class status, allege that that they were lured to enroll by misleading postgraduate employment figures published by the school. They filed suit in August, claiming that the school committed fraud and negligent misrepresentation, and violated the state’s general business law regarding deceptive acts and practices in reporting for several years beginning during the mid-2000s that about 90 percent of its students had secured jobs nine months after graduating.
Venable partner Michael Volpe, representing New York Law School, offered Schweitzer numerous reasons to dismiss the complaint, including that the plaintiffs have failed to show that the law school’s actions caused them harm and that administrators never guaranteed law students a job or a specific salary.
“What this case appears to be is that the plaintiffs just didn’t get the job they wanted now, a few months or a couple of years after law school,” Volpe said. “Success in the law takes time.”
Volpe pointed to President Obama and former St. Louis Cardinals manager Tony La Russa as examples of law graduates who went on to successful careers outside the law.
Jesse Strauss, a sole practitioner representing the plaintiffs along with attorneys David Anziska and Frank Raimond, insisted the issue was not the employment outcomes of the nine plaintiffs; some of them have found jobs in the law but at least one was working at Starbucks. “The harm here is that our clients overpaid for a degree that is worth substantially less,” he said.
Schweitzer did not rule, but appeared skeptical of both sides’ arguments. In particular, he appeared somewhat incredulous at Raimond’s assertion that the plaintiffs were not sophisticated consumers. He knows high school students who have completed lengthy due-diligence before enrolling in college, he said.
Schweitzer questioned Strauss about how he plans to prove the difference in the amount the plaintiffs paid in tuition and the actual value of their law degrees. He wanted to know why the recession, which hit as most of the plaintiffs were graduating, was not a supervening fact.
Similarly, Schweitzer said he was not persuaded by Volpe’s argument that the fraud claim should be dismissed because New York Law School followed the employment reporting procedure set forth by the American Bar Association, which has been authorized to accredit law schools by the U.S. Department of Education. The ABA’s status as a private association, rather than a government agency or department, undermines that argument, the judge said.
“I’m not crazy about that argument,” Schweitzer told Volpe. “I don’t think it flies for an absolute defense.”
Volpe argued that the law school offers a number of disclaimers about the employment information it releases. “No reasonable person,” he said, would read those disclosures and conclude that he had a 90 percent or greater chance of landing a job within nine months of graduation.
One of the school’s disclaimers made clear that its employment statistics were not based on 100 percent of the graduating class, because not every graduate completes the jobs survey. Another warned that $160,000 is not a typical starting salary, he said.
Schweitzer questioned both sides about the disconnect between the 90 percent or so of New York Law School graduates who reported their employment status to the school and the 25 percent who reported their annual salary to the school. Volpe said that many students don’t feel comfortable providing their schools with salary data. Anziska countered that many graduates don’t report annual salaries because they are in temporary or part-time jobs.
“We believe the percentage of people reporting salaries is the true employment rate,” Anziska said. The others “don’t have a set salary to report. They’re doing temp work or volunteer work.”
The case is being closely watched as one of the first in a series of lawsuits against 14 law schools brought by recent graduates. Strauss, Anziska and Raimond have been coordinating the suits, which are being handled by different attorneys in the states in which they were filed.
Following the hearing, Anziska said that Schweitzer “played it close to the vest,” but that he did not believe the judge would dismiss the case.
Contact Karen Sloan at firstname.lastname@example.org.