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A Fulton County, Ga., judge promised a quick ruling Thursday after hearing arguments on certifying a class of former and current Life University students who have sued the school. Fulton State Court Judge Diane E. Bessen also heard arguments on whether a plaintiff’s lawyer, a former chiropractic professor at Life, should be disqualified because he allegedly solicited clients for the case, and whether the suit should be sent to Life’s home territory, Cobb County. The case before Bessen is one of 10 suits filed against the Marietta, Ga., chiropractic school since it lost its chiropractic accreditation Oct. 20. Life’s chiropractic students numbered 2,100 last summer, but that enrollment had dropped to just 494 earlier this month, one defense lawyer said. While a federal judge temporarily restored Life’s accreditation in a Feb. 12 ruling, state court litigation filed by students continues in Cobb and Fulton counties. In the federal case, Life sued the accreditation agency, the Council on Chiropractic Education, for damages of more than $100 million, alleging that the school was stripped of its chiropractic accreditation as retaliation against Life’s founder and former president Sid E. Williams and his conservative chiropractic philosophy. U.S. Senior District Judge Charles M. Moye Jr. granted Life’s motion for a temporary restraining order earlier this month. Moye cited evidence that CCE’s decision involved “actors with a financial interest in the outcome,” as an indication that Life was likely to prevail in its suit. Life University v. Council on Chiropractic Education, No. 1:03-cv-0004 (N.D. Ga., Feb. 12, 2002). 10 SUITS FILED Seven state court cases have been brought by 73 students, filing in groups ranging from one to 29 students. Three other suits, potential class actions, have been filed, including the one before Bessen, which likely will be the first to get a ruling on class certification. “We’re here about how the students were harmed,” plaintiffs’ attorney Yehuda Smolar told Bessen at a hearing Thursday morning. Smolar said he and co-counsel represented 470 students — the largest group involved in any of the cases. Co-counsel Jeffrey L. Sakas, a partner with Smolar at Smolar, Sakas & Goodhart, asked Bessen to certify the class “so these students will know somebody is there to represent them.” The attorney for the school and board of trustees, however, told Bessen that Life University was “very sympathetic to the plight of the students.” The school complied with all accreditation requirements, said Strickland Brockington Lewis partner Mary M. “Peggy” Brockington, adding that Life lost its accreditation because the accrediting agency, CCE, violated its own rules. Brockington asked Bessen to deny the motion for class certification or to defer ruling on it until discovery on certification issues could be conducted or until the federal litigation is resolved. TRANSFER TO COBB PROPOSED Another option defense lawyers suggested Bessen consider was to transfer the case to Cobb. Life has had a considerable presence in Cobb. It also has a Cobb judge who serves on the board of trustees: Superior Court Judge Kenneth O. Nix. Unlike other trustees, Nix hasn’t been named as a defendant in the Cobb suits or the case before Bessen. “I wouldn’t have sued him either,” Bessen said with a smile at the hearing. Brockington said these plaintiffs’ lawyers filed in Fulton rather than Cobb “so they do not have to share being class counsel” with the plaintiffs’ lawyers on the other cases in Cobb. “We don’t want to be in Cobb County,” Smolar insisted. “They want to be in Cobb County because a member of their board is a judge there,” Smolar said, referring to the defendants. Smolar said Bessen had no authority to transfer the case to Cobb because venue was proper in Fulton County, based on the residence of two trustees. The case before Bessen, brought with three named plaintiffs who asked to be named class representatives, involves claims against Life, its trustees and Williams, of breach of contract, negligence, breach of fiduciary duty, fraudulent concealment and civil claims under the state’s Racketeering Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act. Sakas argued Thursday that the plaintiffs met all the requirements for class certification, including numerosity and commonality. All students at Life were affected by actions of the defendants in allowing the loss of accreditation, he said, particularly Life’s actions in concealing its problems with CCE from students. “It came as a real shock to many of these students,” Sakas said, adding that the school failed to warn them of the potential harm. Similarly, he said, all students were affected by the school’s decision to divert money to hockey, rugby and basketball teams, rather than to improve the faculty-student ratio and keep accreditation. Even if the federal court restores Life’s accreditation permanently, Sakas said, the students’ educational paths were disrupted and they suffered damages. LAWYER: STUDENTS NOT ALERTED Brockington responded that “students were never kept in the dark,” but were notified as soon as the school was put on probation. Nor had Life breached its contract or fiduciary duties to the students, she said, adding that CCE’s issues were not financial in nature. She argued that granting class certification would be premature and that the plaintiffs didn’t meet the commonality test, particularly when it came to the RICO and fraudulent concealment claims. Each student, Brockington told Bessen, has individual factual and legal issues regarding what they were told or knew about the school’s accreditation troubles. Those individual issues, she said, make class certification inappropriate for a fraudulent concealment claim. “A class of individuals cannot establish reliance, individuals have to,” Brockington argued. If students enrolled at Life with the understanding the school would be CCE-accredited, isn’t that enough? Bessen asked. Brockington insisted it was an individual issue. She also asked Bessen to disqualify one of the plaintiffs’ lawyers, Roswell sole practitioner Dr. Joseph L. Hoffman. Hoffman, an attorney and chiropractor who was an associate professor at Life, had filed a suit last year in Fulton Superior Court against Life on behalf of a number of students. But he dismissed that case from Fulton Superior Court, then joined with the other attorneys to file the current case in Fulton State Court. Morrow v. Williams, No. 03VS043594J (Fult. St. Jan. 8, 2003). Hoffman has become a source of controversy in the litigation. The defense wants Hoffman disqualified, claiming that he improperly solicited students to join the litigation. Hoffman didn’t speak at this week’s hearing before Bessen, but Sakas addressed the issue. Hoffman, Sakas said, did call students “identified to him by other students to find out if they had an interest in the litigation.” Sakas said the rules on contact with potential class members had changed over the years to permit plaintiffs to investigate the issues. “We’ve had to interview lots of students to find out what has happened,” he told Bessen. “That’s why it’s important for plaintiff’s lawyers to get an idea before they launch out and file a lawsuit. And that’s what we have done.” If Hoffman did anything unethical, Sakas said, it was a matter for the State Bar of Georgia, but shouldn’t affect the granting of class certification. Bessen said if Hoffman had been the only plaintiff’s lawyer, “I would be more concerned.” Brockington said Hoffman’s solicitations were a significant problem. Sakas and Smolar, she told Bessen, have said they haven’t talked to any students, “so plaintiffs came to the case through Hoffman.” She also said Hoffman has a personal interest in the case that could conflict with the interests of the class, if certified: he was disciplined by the school prior to leaving his teaching job. Bessen, whose experience in class actions includes serving as a special master in a class action brought by residents of a Fort Valley neighborhood against a chemical company, promised to rule “fairly quickly.”

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