Florida Coastal School of Law. Courtesy photo

 

The flood of accreditation lawsuits filed against the American Bar Association by law schools in 2017 and 2018 has all but evaporated, with just one of the four litigations still pending.

Florida Coastal School of Law and the ABA’s legal education arm on Tuesday filed notice in federal court that they are jointly dismissing the suit the Jacksonville school brought last May, which alleged that the ABA’s law school accreditation standards are unlawfully vague and applied unevenly across campuses. The ABA had found the school out of compliance with its admissions standards.

The new filing offered no insight into why the parties are dismissing the case, but Florida Coastal Dean Scott DeVito said Wednesday that the school is confident in the ABA’s accreditation process moving forward.

“The primary reason we are dropping the suit is that our faith in the process has been restored based on the council’s and section’s interactions with us on our pending issues the last few months, and after the factfinders came last week,” he said.

Barry Currier, the ABA’s managing director of accreditation and legal education, said the suit’s dismissal—with prejudice and with each side paying its own costs—is a positive development.

“The ABA and the Council welcome the end of this dispute,” Currier said in a prepared statement. “We look forward to continuing to serve the best interests of law students, the public, and the profession through the ABA law school accreditation process, which has consistently been upheld by courts and has been approved by the U.S. Department of Education.”

DeVito sent an email to Florida Coastal students Tuesday to tell them that ABA factfinders had visited the campus last week, giving the school an opportunity to highlight the recent improvements it has made. That visit instilled confidence that Florida Coastal would soon be found in full compliance with the accreditation standards. The ABA’s Council of the Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar is slated to consider Florida Coastal’s accreditation status when it meets in May.

“We talked about our entering credentials being on par with or better than 44 other law schools, our Florida first-time bar pass being above 4 out of 5 comparable law schools in Florida and just 5.5 points below first-tier University of Florida in 2018, the strength and skill of our faculty and academic support, our continuing improvements in career placement, and what great students we have,” DeVito wrote to students.

Moreover, DeVito said administrators are hopeful that the ABA will back the school’s bid to become a non-profit and possibly merge with an established university. (Florida Coastal is currently a for-profit campus owned by InfiLaw Inc. It aims to spin-off from InfiLaw and be governed by its own board, but that change requires the approval of the ABA and other higher education authorities.)

With the dismissal of the Florida Coastal case, only the defunct Charlotte School of Law’s suit remains pending against the ABA. That docket in that case has been quiet since October.

The ABA first became a target for litigation in November 2017, when Western Michigan University Cooley Law School sued after it was found out of compliance with the accreditation standards. The school dropped that suit a year later, after the legal education council determined that it was back in full compliance.

All three of InfiLaw’s schools—Charlotte, Florida Coastal and Arizona Summit Law School—sued the ABA in May of 2018. The circumstances vary slightly in each case, but the schools each argued that they had been wrongfully found out of compliance with the ABA’s accreditation standards. In the case of Charlotte, the plaintiffs claim the ABA’s accreditation actions led the school’s closure in 2017. Arizona Summit dropped its case against the ABA in January, after determining that it will close. (The Phoenix school stopped holding classes last fall, but it will officially remain a school until its remaining students finish their studies at other law schools. The ABA revoked its accreditation in June.)

Florida Coastal had argued in court papers that the Law School Admission Test scores and undergraduate grades of its new students had improved significantly in recent years, and that its bar pass rates had similarly climbed. It claimed that it had performed better in those areas than some schools that had not been found out of compliance by the ABA.

“Florida Coastal and InfiLaw have decided that our lawsuit against the ABA is no longer necessary to protect the interests of our students, alumni, faculty, and staff, and we are dismissing the lawsuit,” DeVito wrote in his message to students.