New York state’s court of last resort has refused to revive a lawsuit by disgruntled New York Law School graduates who alleged their alma mater enticed them to enroll through fraud. As the first of 15 similar lawsuits to reach a courtroom, the case had been seen as a bellwether.
The New York State Court of Appeals offered no explanation for refusing to hear Gomez-Jimenez v. New York Law School. The vote was 4-1, with Judge Robert Smith dissenting. Judge Jenny Rivera—a professor at the City University of New York School of Law for 15 years before her appointment to the court in February—abstained.
Nine graduates sued the law school in 2011, alleging it had induced them to enroll by lying about how well its graduates fared in the job market. They sought $225 million in compensation.
"We’re disappointed that the New York Court of Appeals didn’t take it up," plaintiffs attorney Jesse Strauss said. "But we feel good about our efforts and our work. It didn’t break our way, but we felt like we needed to try."
New York Law School’s top administrator played down the victory.
"As we have been doing since I started as dean 10 months ago, NYLS will continue to focus on serving its students and alumni well, building its plan for the future and reintroducing itself as New York’s law school," dean Anthony Crowell said.
New York County, N.Y., Supreme Court Judge Melvin Schweitzer dismissed the action on March 21, 2012, reasoning that the economic downturn was more responsible for the plaintiffs’ career woes than any fraudulent behavior by the school.
The plaintiffs’ attorneys held out hope of having more success at the appellate level, but an intermediate appellate court affirmed the dismissal on December 21, even while finding that the law school had been "less than candid."
In February, the plaintiffs asked the state’s highest court to take the case, arguing that different lower courts had offered different rationales for dismissing a number of similar cases.
Strauss said the high court’s decision not to hear the appeal does not bode well for the three other cases against New York law schools.
A trial judge in January dismissed a nearly identical action against Albany Law School; an appeal was pending.
Plaintiffs are awaiting decisions at the trial level in cases against both Brooklyn Law School and the Hofstra University Maurice A. Deane School of Law.
"We’ll have to talk with our clients in those cases and see if they want to appeal," Strauss said.
Strauss expressed disappointment that his team was unable to accomplish its primary goal, which was to secure compensation for the New York Law School plaintiffs, but saw a silver lining: "Our secondary goal was to change the way law schools operate and increase transparency, and we’ve done that," he said.
The team also wanted to spotlight the job placement statistics that law schools report to the American Bar Association and U.S. News & World Report, which publishes highly influential law school rankings. That the message has been heard, Straus said, is reflected in the fact that U.S. News weighted its latest rankings to favor schools that send more graduates into full-time jobs that require a J.D. Additionally, the ABA now requires law schools to report more detailed employment data.
Also contributing were admissions by two law schools to falsifying the academic credentials of their incoming students and agitation by the nonprofit Law School Transparency for better law school consumer data. Additionally, several U.S. senators have criticized law schools’ practices. While New York courts have been hostile to the law school suits, they have had more success elsewhere.
A federal judge in New Jersey on March 20 denied a motion to dismiss a fraud case against Widener University School of Law, ruling that the alumni claims were plausible. California state court lawsuits against the California Western School of Law; Golden Gate University School of Law; the University of San Francisco School of Law; Southwestern Law School and Thomas Jefferson School of Law have survived initial motions to dismiss.
Still, cases against DePaul University College of Law; Chicago-Kent College of Law; and The John Marshall Law School have been dismissed, as has the case against the Thomas M. Cooley Law School, which is on appeal.
Karen Sloan writes for The National Law Journal, a Daily Report affiliate.