Charlotte School of Law in Charlotte, North Carolina. (Courtesy photo) Charlotte School of Law in Charlotte, North Carolina. (Courtesy photo)

 

The Charlotte School of Law has fired back in court against students and recent graduates who allege they should have been informed sooner of the school’s shaky accreditation status that prompted the federal government to pull their access to student loans late last year.

The school, which in November was formally reprimanded by the accrediting body of the American Bar Association for substandard admissions practices, has now moved to dismiss all three federal class actions brought by Charlotte Law students. Those suits were filed after the U.S. Department of Education’s in December decided to stop issuing loans to Charlotte Law students, a situation that has decimated Charlotte Law’s enrollment and pushed the school to the brink of collapse.

The three motions to dismiss, which are similar, but differ depending on the specific claims alleged in each class action, argue that Charlotte was bound to keep its preliminary accreditation results confidential under ABA rules, and that any harm to students was inflicted by the Education Department instead. The school alleges that each class action fails to state a valid claim, in part because their breach of contract and unjust enrichment claims are actually claims of educational malpractice, which North Carolina law doesn’t recognize.

“[Charlotte School of Law] had no reason to expect that the ABA’s limited findings of noncompliance would result in severe consequences for enrolled students, much less that the [Education Department] inexplicably would use interim findings within an ongoing accreditation process to deny recertification to participate in federal student loan programs,” reads the motion to dismiss in Barchiesi v. Charlotte School of Law, the first response to be filed by the school.

The motion to dismiss in Levy v. Charlotte School of Law, filed eight days later, called the discontinuance of federal student loans to the school an “extreme and politically charged action.”

The school has yet to file a motion to dismiss in a fourth federal lawsuit brought by an individual student, Leah Ash, but filed the last of the three class action motions on April 21.

Student lawsuits aren’t the only legal challenge facing the beleaguered law school. North Carolina Attorney General Josh Stein has opened an investigation into whether Charlotte violated the state’s consumer protection laws, according to a report this week in Politico.

Charlotte Law’s problems came to a head in July 2016 when the ABA’s accreditation committee informed the school that it was out of compliance with its law school standards and ordered remedial action, including a disclosure to students that it was on probation, according to court papers. But the ABA’s council of the Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar, which has the final word on accreditation matters, stayed that probation and public disclosure until November, when it formally reprimanded the school for its admissions practices. The council also ordered the school at that time to inform students of its probationary status.

The Education Department announced the following month that it was ending the school’s federal loan eligibility in response to the shortcomings identified by the ABA.

The first student class action, Krebs v. Charlotte School of Law, was filed the next day. The various complaints allege that Charlotte harmed students by not disclosing the fact that the ABA identified accreditation problems as early as 2014 in a bid to prevent students from enrolling there or transferring out.

“In some circumstances, plaintiffs and the putative class have been damaged and left without the ability to sit for, take and pass the bar exam, to become licensed practicing attorneys, to obtain financial assistance for completion of their education and or graduated with a degree from [Charlotte School of Law] that is worth less than what was expected and bargained for had [the school] maintained its ABA accreditation,” reads the second amended complaint in Levy.

But the school counters in its motions to dismiss that it remains fully accredited by the ABA to this day, and that ABA rules maintain that accreditation reviews remain confidential until a final decision is announced by the council. Moreover, it argues that the plaintiffs were not harmed by the timing of the probation disclosure because they were already enrolled or had graduated at the time the council made that final decision. Those students had access to a wealth of information about graduate employment rates and admissions data through the disclosures the ABA requires every school to make annually, the school’s motions to dismiss claim.

“This is the type of information that prospective law students use to determine whether to attend an institution—not technical documents exchanged between a school and the ABA that are part of an ongoing process designed to enhance school quality and designated by the ABA as confidential,” reads the motion to dismiss in Barchiesi.

The plaintiffs in Barchiesi are thus far the only ones to file a reply to Charlotte’s motion to dismiss. That reply argues that the school’s conduct runs afoul of North Carolina’s Unfair and Deceptive Trade Practices Act.

“By failing and refusing to disclose the ABA’s adverse findings, admittedly material information, defendants collected millions of dollars from unsuspecting students, including plaintiffs, who would have avoided the failing institution had they known the truth,” reads that response motion filed April 10.

Charlotte filed a reply on Monday, calling the plaintiffs’ response “long on invective and short on relevant law.”

Contact Karen Sloan at ksloan@alm.com. On Twitter: @KarenSloanNLJ