Can a trial judge be impartial when his alma mater is being sued for fraud? Three attorneys behind a spate of fraud class actions targeting law schools don’t think so.
They argued on August 1 that Kings County, N.Y., Supreme Court Judge David Schmidt should recuse himself from the case they filed against Brooklyn Law School on behalf of five recent graduates. Schmidt graduated from that law school — located just spitting distance from the courthouse — 30 years ago.
Frank Raimond, representing the plaintiffs along with Jesse Strauss and David Anziska, told Schmidt that their recusal request was based on the appearance of his potential allegiance to the law school. Strauss added that Brooklyn Law graduates on the bench might hope to be honored by the school and thus be reluctant to rule against it.
But Schmidt, who appeared amused by the idea that he would be biased toward the school, said he’s not waiting on or expecting special recognition. In fact, he joked, he found his law school days “boring.” He declined to recuse himself.
“I have no ties at all with Brooklyn Law School,” he said. “I’m not a major donor.” If he actually had a close relationship with the school, he said, “I would hear arguments” for recusal.
Later, Strauss acknowledged that his team considered it unlikely that Schmidt would recuse himself, but wanted the motion on the record.
“It’s a tough call,” Strauss said. “The law school is right down the block from the courthouse and some judges do have ties.”
Schmidt was not the only one in the courtroom with a history with Brooklyn Law. Strauss was a 2003 graduate and Russell Jackson, an attorney at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom who represents the school, has taught classes there as an adjunct professor.
Besides the recusal motion, Schmidt had been scheduled to hear the law school’s motion to dismiss. However, he postponed a full hearing on the claims until later in the month, citing a packed court schedule.
The case is one of 14 the three attorneys have filed against law schools around the country on behalf of graduates who claim they misrepresented employment statistics to lure students.
“These deceptions are perpetuated so as to prevent prospective students from realizing the obvious — that attending the Brooklyn Law and forking over nearly $150,000 in tuition payments is a terrible investment which makes little economic sense and, most likely, will never pay off,” they wrote in a complaint filed on Feb. 1.
In its motion to dismiss, Brooklyn Law argues that the plaintiffs offer no evidence that the law school reported false numbers, and that administrators followed reporting standards established by the American Bar Association.
“It’s hardly news that employer demand for entry-level lawyers recently has declined dramatically,” the defense motion reads. “Plaintiffs are [Brooklyn] graduates who are disappointed with the current job market. Disappointment, however, is not a legal cause of action.”
The defense motion heavily cites a March opinion by New York County, N.Y., Supreme Court Judge Melvin Schweitzer dismissing a nearly identical case against New York Law School. Schweitzer ruled that the employment data at issue in that case were not deceptive and that the plaintiffs provided no facts to support their allegations of fraud.
U.S. District Judge Gordon Quist on July 20 dismissed a similar suit against the Thomas M. Cooley Law School, also brought by the attorneys representing the Brooklyn law graduates.
The plaintiffs attorneys have won several initial victories in California, however. San Francisco County Superior Court Judge Harold Kahn on July 19 overruled demurrers by Golden Gate University School of Law and the University of San Francisco School of Law.
“Each of the plaintiffs allege that they were in fact deceived by the statements they attribute to the defendant, and there is nothing before me to suggest that any of the plaintiffs were not reasonable consumers of a law school education,” Kahn wrote.
Although Schmidt postponed a full hearing, he appeared interested in the allegations and said he wanted to set aside several hours for arguments. Leaving the bench and his judicial robe behind, Schmidt sat opposite the attorneys at the lawyers’ table with his tie askew while a gaggle of court interns observed from nearby. He peppered both sides with questions about employment statistics that the plaintiffs claim are misleading.
“Did they really do anything different than any other law school?” Schmidt asked the plaintiffs attorneys. “Is anyone getting a job right now?”
Contact Karen Sloan at email@example.com.