Represented by three Kirkland & Ellis partners, defunct Charlotte School of Law and its parent company on Tuesday filed suit against the American Bar Association and its various entities involved in law school accreditation, alleging that the ABA violated the school’s due process when it placed Charlotte on probation in 2016.
That sanction prompted the U.S. Department of Education to cut the North Carolina school off from federal loan eligibility in December 2016—a financially crippling blow from which it never recovered. The school officially shut down the following August, but the suit hinted that owner InfiLaw Corp. wants to resurrect it.
The school, represented by Kirkland partners Paul Clement, Viet Dinh and H. Christopher Bartolomucci, asked the court to issue a declaratory judgment that, “would make it possible for Charlotte to begin the process of attempting to obtain the approvals necessary to resume operating as a law school.”
The new suit, filed in U.S. District Court for the Western District of North Carolina, claimed that the ABA’s accreditation standards are vague and that it has been inconsistent in its application of the standards. It also claimed that officials within the U.S. Department of Education, which tasks the ABA with law school oversight, pressured the body to take action against for-profit law schools like Charlotte, and that the ABA didn’t follow its own procedures in sanctioning Charlotte.
“This court should hold the ABA accountable for abusing its accreditation authority and causing Charlotte to close its doors,” reads Charlotte’s complaint.
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Representatives for the ABA’s section of legal education and admissions to the bar did not respond to requests for comment Tuesday.
Charlotte’s allegations are very similar to those contained in a suit filed against the ABA in federal court last week by Florida Coastal School of Law, also represented by the three Kirkland partners. The ABA notified Florida Coastal in October that it is out of compliance with its admission standards, and in late April reaffirmed that the school remains out of compliance. Florida Coastal, however, remains open. Both schools are owned by InfiLaw, which also runs the for-profit Arizona Summit Law School in Phoenix. Arizona Summit has also run afoul of the ABA’s accreditation standards. It was put on probation by the ABA in March 2017. The Charlotte suit claimed that a court finding that the ABA violated Charlotte’s due process would benefit InfiLaw as well as Florida Coastal and Arizona Summit.
“The complaint filed today in federal court alleges that the ABA’s actions against [Charlotte] violated the due process required of those wielding accreditation power and caused [the school] to be excluded from the Title IV federal loan program, making it impossible for [it] to continue to operate as a law school,” Clement said in a written statement.
The suit alleged that the ABA let lower-performing law schools off the hook while seeking out Charlotte for punishment.
The ABA has stepped up its efforts to police law schools in the past two years, partly in response to criticism from the Education Department that it had been too lax on underperforming law schools with high graduate debt and poor bar pass rates.
Charlotte has asked the court to grant an injunction restoring Charlotte’s ABA accreditation as well as an injunction barring it for enforcing its admissions standards with any law school. Those standards require law schools to admit only students who “appear capable” of graduating and passing the bar. It also seeks unspecified damages.