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A Fulton County, Ga., jury last week awarded a former Morehouse College student nearly $700,000 for wrongful expulsion from the school. Antonio D. McGaha sued the school for breach of contract, alleging that, at the end of his junior year, he was falsely accused of theft over a tuition refund he had received a year and a half earlier. McGaha, who had majored in biology, claimed he was summarily expelled without being afforded the rights spelled out in his student handbook. And when he appealed the discipline meted out by the college’s Honor & Conduct Review Board, he said he received a letter denying that appeal before the board ever met to consider it. At trial, the postmark on that letter of May 6, 2000 — days before the board meeting of May 9, 2000 — became critical evidence, according to McGaha and his lawyers. “That was probably the most uncontroverted evidence at trial,” said Marvin A. Devlin of Devlin & Robinson, one of McGaha’s lawyers, “because no one at Morehouse could contest a U.S. Postal Service mark.” After a four-day trial before Fulton County State Court Judge Patsy Y. Porter, jurors deliberated two hours before returning a verdict Oct. 2 of $698,500 for breach of contract in McGaha v. Morehouse College. Plaintiff’s lawyers argued at trial that Morehouse violated its contract with McGaha — as spelled out in the student handbook. They also argued that Morehouse had altered McGaha’s official transcript, deleting 38 credit hours, and then restoring some of them. Morehouse’s attorney Charles R. Beans of Hawkins & Parnell, who tried the case with Hawkins associate Monica F. Patterson, declined comment, referring questions to the school’s general counsel, Karen Miller. Miller didn’t return a call for comment. The school’s media relations manager, Elise Durham, didn’t respond to a request for comment by press time. McGaha, 24, said some of the jurors made him promise to return to school and finish his education, and they insisted they would check to make sure he did. He said he intended to do just that. The case, McGaha said, was all about clearing his name. “I was put out because of something I didn’t do,” he said. “There were times I actually thought about packing up” and returning to his hometown of Tishomingo, Miss., he said. Instead, he decided to stay and pursue the case in court. “It’s shameful that we had to get to this point to clear the name of a good person,” said James E. Dearing Jr., another of McGaha’s lawyers. “There was never any doubt in my mind that [McGaha] was telling the truth. His story never wavered.” Morehouse, Dearing said, had little or no regard for McGaha or his rights. “The manner of operation of the board deprived him of fundamental fairness as required by the handbook,” he added. McGaha, represented by Dearing of James E. Dearing Jr. and Devlin & Robinson attorneys Devlin, Rebecca Christian Smith and Earnest Redwine Jr., originally filed suit in Fulton Superior Court. A second student, Randy Chambers, who was expelled from Morehouse over similar allegations, also was a plaintiff. A superior court judge dismissed a number of the former students’ claims but left intact their breach of contract claim against the school. The two students then dismissed that case and filed separate suits in Fulton State Court. Chambers’ case is pending. The disciplinary proceedings that sparked the litigation arose out of McGaha’s participation in an off-campus exchange program at Columbia University’s Biosphere 2 in Arizona in the fall semester of 1998. At issue was whether he had been entitled to keep a $7,000 tuition refund the Biosphere gave him. McGaha claimed the refund was proper and he was unaware there was any problem until just prior to final examinations in the spring of 2000. Then, his parents received two letters dated April 20, 2000, one informing them their son was expelled for dishonesty or fraud in connection with the refund, the other instructing McGaha to appear before the honor board on May 3, 2000. McGaha said he heard about the problem when his mother called. “She was confused. My father was confused. And angry. Angry and confused,” he recalled. The board voted to expel him but gave him four business days from the May 3 hearing to file an appeal. He did so May 5, then left for Mississippi. On May 8, he received a letter denying his appeal. The letter was dated May 10 but postmarked May 6 — three days before the board met on May 9. Morehouse, in court papers, said the school had sent tuition for its students directly to the Biosphere. But instead of that money going to Columbia, a Biosphere employee erroneously gave it to McGaha, who converted it to his own use, the school claimed. The refund, however, wasn’t at the heart of McGaha’s breach of contract claim. Instead, the key issue was whether McGaha had been afforded all the rights in his student handbook. According to Devlin and Dearing, Georgia law provides that private colleges are liable only for what they promise students, typically in student handbooks, and fail to deliver. If the handbook promises certain rights, that constitutes a contract, they said. Morehouse argued in court documents that the school gave McGaha every due right and had not breached a contract with him. Even if someone at Morehouse mailed out a letter prior to the appeal hearing, predicting that McGaha’s appeal would be denied, defense lawyers contended that doing so wasn’t important. What was important, they insisted, was that McGaha was entitled to an appeal, received one and lost. “Discrepancies about dates on letters and envelopes do not and cannot change this irrefutable fact,” one defense brief argued. McGaha’s lawyers, however, said the jury evidently saw it differently. College, Devlin said, is a one-shot experience that comes at a unique time in life. But his client had that experience derailed, he said. “If that one shot is taken away,” he added, “that changes your life and your prospects.”

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