The American Bar Association and Western Michigan University Cooley Law School are due in federal court next week for a settlement conference, signaling a possible end to a contentious lawsuit brought by the school over the ABA’s accreditation practices.
The parties are headed to U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan on June 19 for a settlement conference before U.S. Magistrate Judge David Grand, and must submit a history of their settlement negotiations to the court by Friday. Cooley sued last November after the school was found to be out of compliance with the ABA’s admissions standard, alleging that rule is unlawfully vague and that the ABA’s accreditation decision-making is cloaked in secrecy.
The school asked the court to enjoin the ABA from enforcing the admissions standard until it could specify what Cooley needed to do to be in compliance, among other relief.
Barry Currier, the ABA’s managing director of accreditation and legal education, said Wednesday that the settlement conference was court ordered and that the litigation is ongoing. Cooley general counsel James Robb declined to comment.
David Frakt, an attorney who has been blogging about the litigation, wrote in a post on The Faculty Lounge blog that an apparent settlement may signal that Cooley is poised to achieve both of its original objectives: to be found in compliance with the accreditation standards and to gain the ABA’s blessing to open a satellite campus in Kalamazoo, Michigan.
Cooley met the first goal in April, when the ABA’s Accreditation Committee determined that the school had made the necessary changes to come back into compliance with the admissions standard, which states that schools admit only students who “appear capable” of graduating and passing the bar exam. (Cooley’s complaint specifically requests a definition of “appears capable.”)
Cooley agreed to admit only students whose Law School Admission Test scores and undergraduate grade point averages predict a law school grade point average of 2.1, up from the previous 2.0, according to an Accreditation Committee letter detailing their decision that was entered as an exhibit in the lawsuit. Moreover, students whose incoming academic credentials suggest they will achieve a law school grade point average below 2.5 would be limited to taking no more than 12 credits a semester, or one less class than a typical course load. (Such Accreditation Committee letters are confidential under the ABA’s rules and typically not made public.)
The letter also indicates that the Accreditation Committee will take up Cooley’s application to open a Kalamazoo campus when it meets June 28 though 30 in Portland, Oregon.
“Assuming this decision goes Cooley’s way, Cooley will have got both of the things that they wanted,” Frakt wrote. “By settling, the ABA can avoid awkward litigation over its seemingly arbitrary enforcement of [its admissions standard], and avoid the risk of litigating similar issues in multiple jurisdictions, with the potential that a negative ruling in the Cooley case could aid the cause of one of the InfiLaw law schools in that ongoing litigation.”
InfiLaw Corp.—owner of two for-profit law schools and the now closed Charlotte School of Law—has also filed three separate federal lawsuits challenging the ABA’s law school accreditation, making similar allegations to Cooley. The ABA last month moved to consolidate all three of those suits in North Carolina.
Cooley initially applied to open a Kalamazoo campus in September 2016, but the ABA’s Council of the Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar declined to approve the new location until the school was found to be in full compliance with the accreditation standards—a condition that Cooley appears to have now met.
Kalamazoo is the home of Western Michigan University, a public university that private Cooley formally became affiliated with in 2014. Previously, the law school was named the Thomas M. Cooley Law School.
At the time of the affiliation, Cooley administrators said the partnership would provide more synergies between the two institutions, including the ability for law students to take first-year courses in Kalamazoo. The pending application seeks to expand those offerings, allowing students to complete 60 credits there before transferring to one of the school’s other locations in Lansing, Grand Rapids, Auburn Hills or Tampa Bay, Florida.