Don’t like your law school grade? Then sue.
Two former students at Texas Southern University Thurgood Marshall School of Law have done just that, claiming that their Contracts II professor gave them unfairly low grades that resulted in their dismissal from the program.
Karla Ford and Jonathan Chan filed suit in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas on Feb. 2 against the university’s board of regents, the law school and former adjunct professor Shelley Smith.
Both plaintiffs were 1Ls last year and took Smith’s Contracts II course during the spring semester. Chan received a D- in the class, according to the complaint, while Ford received a D.
The law school requires students to maintain a 2.0 grade-point average at the end of their first year, and both plaintiffs were dismissed in September for failing to meet that standard, the complaint said.
Calls to Chan and Ford’s attorney, Jason Bach, were not immediately returned.
Dean Dannye Holley declines to discuss the pending litigation, but said that students are not given a grace period if they cannot maintain an acceptable GPA after one year in school.
“These are first-year students who flunked out,” Holley said. “We have a system in place that requires you make a 2.0 grade-point average, which is probably the norm across the country. You don’t want to have a student pay second- and third-year tuition when they are performing at that level and likely will not do well on the bar exam or in practice.”
The complaint alleged that Smith, a partner at Chicago firm Belongia Shapiro & Franklin who served as an adjunct professor, “arbitrarily issued [the plaintiffs] a low grade, which was not based upon their performance on the examinations.” It added that Smith tried to “curve them out of the class” and refused to explain how she arrived at their grades.
“The University and professor Smith deliberately withheld all information from plaintiffs regarding the basis for the grades they received, including where points were awarded and where points were taken away on the examination,” the complaint said.
Smith has also taught as an adjunct professor at Marquette University Law School and Southern Illinois University School of Law. She declines to comment.
Chan and Ford filed petitions for a grade change and met with the law school’s Academic Standards Committee in September, but the original grades were upheld. The law school’s grading system was designed to ensure that all 1Ls are on a “level playing field,” Holley said. “We do it in consultation with national experts, so that you don’t have the idiosyncrasies of particular professors.”
Half of 1L grades are determined by multiple-choice, machine-graded tests that are the same across teaching sections, Holley said. The other 50 percent is determined by individual professors, but they don’t assign specific grades. Rather, they rank students’ performance and assign letter grades on a curve.
“[The plaintiffs] were competing only with other 1Ls students,” Holley said. “There’s nothing unusual or different about the fundamentals of what happened.”
Chan and Ford alleged breach of contract, intentional and negligent infliction of emotional distress, defamation, slander and libel. They also allege that the university was negligent in its hiring, training and supervision of Smith. They seek more than $75,000 in compensatory and punitive damages and reinstatement to the law school class.