An Orlando federal judge has tossed a whistleblower lawsuit filed by a former professor at the Charlotte School of Law against the defunct for-profit school, parent InfiLaw Corp. and the American Bar Association.
U.S. District Judge Roy Dalton Jr. of the Middle District of Florida ruled Barbara Bernier’s claims that Charlotte and InfiLaw defrauded the federal government out of more than $285 million by admitting unqualified students were too vague to move forward.
The judge also decided two earlier False Claims Act actions against InfiLaw’s soon-to-close Arizona Summit Law School bar Bernier’s suit because they brought very similar allegations.
In rejecting supplemental jurisdiction, Dalton sidestepped Bernier’s state law claim that the ABA’s Council for the Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar was negligent in bestowing accreditation on Charlotte in 2011.
“No federal claim will continue here and plaintiffs’ claim against the ABA, like the other state-law claims, just arrived,” Dalton wrote in his Nov. 8 opinion. “That means it’s early enough to remove this claim without unduly burdening the parties. Plus, the claim presents a pretty run-of-the-mill negligence question; it’s not wrapped up in a federal issue that would lean in favor of resolution by a federal court.”
Bernier’s attorney, Coleman Watson, did not respond to requests for comment Thursday, nor did an InfiLaw spokesman. InfiLaw has filed three lawsuits against the ABA on behalf of Charlotte, Arizona Summit and Florida Coastal School of Law in Jacksonville, claiming the organization’s accreditation standards are unlawfully vague and applied inconsistently.
“The ABA welcomes the judge’s ruling to close this case,” said Barry Currier, the ABA’s managing director of accreditation and legal education. “We never thought we should have been part of it. We will continue to serve the best interests of students and the public through the ABA law school accreditation process, which has repeatedly been upheld by courts and has been approved by the U.S. Department of Education.”
Bernier’s suit barely survived an earlier motion to dismiss when Dalton tossed most of her claims on the grounds that the former professor was not an original source for the allegations because they had already appeared in various media outlets.
But in dismissing the suit, Dalton offered a scathing review of Charlotte’s business model and treatment of students.
“The whole operation became about increasing enrollment to keep those federal funds flowing in,” Dalton wrote. “And it worked — on the front end, at least. [Charlotte] began admitting hordes of academically unqualified students and increased their tuition from $30,000 more than $41,000. But these dodgy practices caught up with [Charlotte] when it came time for students to pass the bar exam and find legal employment.”
Bernier was a member of the Charlotte Law faculty from 2013 to 2016, and she filed her whistleblower suit shortly after leaving the school. She alleged Charlotte’s admissions practices, academic program, grading, bar passage, employment practices and treatment of faculty were all designed to bring in and retain students without regard to their qualifications or ability to succeed to keep student loan dollars coming.
The school violated several provisions established by the U.S. Department of Education meant to safeguard federal student loans, she claimed. The government declined to intervene in the suit following an investigation.
After Dalton dismissed many of her initial claims in April, Bernier filed a second amended complaint in May that added plaintiff Ese Love, a former Charlotte student and employee. It also added the ABA as a defendant and several state law claims. That complaint claimed the ABA erred in awarding accreditation to Charlotte, which allowed students to fully fund their law degrees through federal student loans. The ABA called the allegation a “last-ditch effort” to revive Bernier’s faltering suit in its motion to dismiss.
In his latest opinion, Dalton wrote Bernier’s “second bite at the apple still sours.”
First, an earlier False Claims Act complaint against Arizona Summit “sketches the exact same fraudulent scheme by InfiLaw,” his opinion reads. Second, her suit fails to demonstrate Charlotte’s handling of federal student loans violated Education Department rules. Lastly, Dalton declined to take up Bernier’s state law claims of gross negligence and fraudulent inducement.