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A former law student has filed a federal class action against St. Thomas University School of Law of Miami, claiming that it is illegally accepting and then expelling more than 25% of its first-year class to boost its flagging bar pass rates. Filed in U.S. District Court for the District of New Jersey, the complaint alleges that the private law school unlawfully dismissed Thomas Joseph Bentey and as many as 80 students from the incoming class of 2005 because they failed to maintain a 2.5 grade point average. The action further alleges that in 2003 the school began a scheme to accept large numbers of students-and their tuition dollars-only later to dismiss or pressure the withdrawal of almost 30% of its first- and second-year students. The case could include hundreds of former students as plaintiffs if the court grants class action status. The associate dean for student and alumni services at St. Thomas law school called the lawsuit “illogical.” “Why would you admit people and dismiss them early if you’re trying to get their resources?” said George Sheldon. He said that the attrition rate at the school is about 12%, typical for law schools ranked similarly to St. Thomas. He also disputed the assertion that 25% of the first-year class at issue was dismissed. Instead, he said 40 of 330 students were let go. He added that a year ago the school decided to modify its academic probation grade point average to 2.0. School ‘culling’ students Representing Bentey is Michael Lombardi, a partner at Lombardi & Lombardi in Edison, N.J. He said that the school is “culling” students it should not have admitted in the first place. “They’re not supposed to accept students who don’t have a reasonable prospect of completing law school,” he said. The bar exam pass rate at St. Thomas last year was 61.5%, compared with a statewide rate in Florida of 73%. In 2004, some 57% of the school’s graduates passed the bar, compared with 76% statewide. Also named as a defendant in the lawsuit is the American Bar Association Section of Legal Education and Admission to the Bar. The action asserts that the ABA failed to adequately oversee the school by not detecting the alleged scheme and by not taking the steps necessary to make sure the school was meeting its standards. One of the ABA’s accreditation standards requires that law schools admit only applicants who appear capable of completing their educational programs and being admitted to the bar. A spokesman for the ABA said it would not comment on pending litigation. Filed last month, the 12-page complaint specifically alleges that Franklyn Casale, who is the university’s president; Robert Butterworth, the law school’s dean; and other administrators violated federal anti-racketeering laws by devising a scheme to intentionally dismiss students who were in the bottom 25% of their class in order to improve the law school’s bar exam pass rate. Some of the reported goals of Butterworth, former attorney general of Florida, when he took the dean’s job in 2003 were to raise the bar passage rate and increase enrollment. The law school currently has about 800 students, according to U.S. News & World Report. In 2004, it had 619. Last year, the ABA’s Official Guide to ABA-Approved Law Schools ranked St. Thomas first in total Hispanic enrollment among all ABA-accredited law schools. The publication ranked it fifth in Spanish heritage total enrollment. The lawsuit also claims that the school is violating its own policy of a mandatory grading curve that calls for 15% of all grades to be lower than a C+. It claims that, instead, far more than 15% of first- and second-year students receive grades that put them on academic probation. It also alleges that the school collects tuition from students in the bottom 25% of the class, although it does not intend to allow them to graduate. The average attrition rate at law schools, which can vary widely at each school, is about 10%, according to Richard Sander, a legal education scholar and law professor at the University of California at Los Angeles School of Law. Bentey, a resident of Edison, N.J., received one B, two grades of C+ and two Cs after his first semester, according to the complaint. For his second semester, he received the same grades, except for an additional credit hour of C+. In addition to injunctive relief and punitive damages, Bentey is seeking $25,800 in tuition fees, $20,000 for residency and occupancy expenses, $35,000 for loss of earnings while in law school, and damages for personal embarrassment.

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