Florida Coastal School of Law must continue to disclose its accreditation shortcomings on its website, a federal judge ruled Monday.
The Jacksonville school had sought a preliminary injunction blocking an American Bar Association-imposed requirement that it publicly disclose that it was found out of compliance with several accreditation standards this spring. But Judge Brian Davis of the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida thwarted the law school’s efforts, finding that the accreditation dispute is not ripe for judicial review because the school has not yet exhausted the ABA’s internal appeals process.
He also found that since information about Florida Coastal’s accreditation problems has already been posted on the school’s website for several months, removing it now would not undo any potential harm to the law school.
“The Court finds that Coastal has not shown irreparable harm where it is forced to disclose the outcome of the ABA’s determination, especially where this determination is an exercise in transparency, and students—potential and current—are told of both the ABA’s decision and Coastal’s appeal,” reads Davis’ opinion. “Moreover, the harm Coastal may suffer is too speculative.”
Florida Coastal Dean Scott DeVito said in a prepared statement Tuesday that despite Davis’ ruling, the ABA had already acquiesced to most of the school’s demands, including delaying a fact-finder visit and stopping a required disclosure of bar pass rates. Florida Coastal argued in court filings that several of the ABA’s disclosure requirements would undermine its ongoing efforts to boost its bar passage rate and recruit qualified students.
Barry Currier, the ABA’s managing director for legal education and admissions to the bar, said Tuesday that he appreciates the court’s ruling.
“As we have previously said, while we do not comment on pending litigation, we have noted that courts regularly uphold the ABA’s law school accreditation process,” he said. “We will continue to follow our established procedures and expect to be successful in any future litigation challenging the actions of the Council.”
Davis’ denial of Florida Coastal’s bid for a preliminary injunction is the latest development in a wave of litigation brought by InfiLaw and its three for-profit law schools against the ABA for what the schools claim is an unfair accreditation process with vague rules that are applied unevenly across law school campuses. Each of the schools—Florida Coastal, Arizona Summit Law School, and the now-closed Charlotte School of Law—were found noncompliant with the ABA rules meant to ensure that accredited campuses offer high-quality programs.
Charlotte closed down in August after the ABA placed it on probation and the U.S. Department of Education removed the school from its federal student loan program. The ABA in June removed Arizona Summit’s accreditation, a decision the school has appealed. (The school will maintain its accreditation until the ABA reaches a decision on its appeal.)
The ABA last fall found Florida Coastal out of compliance with rules pertaining to its educational program and academic support. The ABA’s Council of the Section of Legal Education in May reached the same conclusion.
The ABA took particular issue with the law school’s poor bar passage rate in recent years. The school’s pass rate fell in the range of 25 percent to 51 percent during the four exams in 2016 and 2017, but rose to 62 percent for the February 2018 administration.
The ABA required Florida Coastal to post a notice on its website disclosing the May finding of noncompliance. It also mandated that the school inform all current students by July 2 of the school’s recent bar pass rates, broken down into quartiles, as well as which quartile of the class each student falls into based on their grades. Finally, the ABA required a fact finder to visit the school.
Florida Coastal filed an appeal with the ABA and also filed a due process lawsuit against the accreditor in May. The school followed up with a motion for a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction on June 15.
Florida Coastal argued that disclosing the ABA’s noncompliance finding would drive highly credentialed potential applicants away and hurt its ongoing efforts to improve the quality of its student body.
Additionally, the school claimed that bar pass disclosure is misleading because the pass rates are based on classes of graduates with lesser academic credentials than current students, who generally have higher Law School Admission Test scores and are more likely to pass the bar. Overstating the risk of failing the bar exam will hurt current students’ studies and prompt some to transfer to other schools, Florida Coastal argued in court papers.
Davis denied the school’s bid for a temporary restraining order but expedited the briefing schedule for the preliminary injunction to meet the July 2 bar pass disclosure deadline. The parties met in court on June 29 for oral arguments.
In the meantime, the ABA opted to stay the bar pass disclosure requirement until it reached a decision on Florida Coastal’s internal appeal. According to Davis’ latest opinion, the ABA also agreed to withhold its investigation into Florida Coastal’s finances, including the fact-finder requirement.
That left only the public disclosure for the court to consider. Davis noted that the ABA’s letter finding the school out of compliance with several of its standards had been posted to the school’s website for nearly two months, albeit “buried” on the site. Citing a 2012 ruling in which the court declined to issue a preliminary injunction removing the now-infamous Hulk Hogan sex tape from the website Gawker, Davis wrote that “the proverbial ‘cat is out of the bag.’ ”