Thomas M. Cooley Law School. (Courtesy of Cooley Law School)
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit on Wednesday affirmed a trial judge’s dismissal of a defamation lawsuit brought by the Thomas M. Cooley Law School against three plaintiffs lawyers who sued the school for alleged fraud in 2011.
The ruling followed last week’s dismissal by a federal judge in New York of a separate defamation countersuit brought by one of the plaintiffs attorneys—Jeffrey Kurzon—against Cooley. That judge said she lacked jurisdiction over the Michigan law school.
“Cooley should have known better than to bring this meritless, vindictive, vexatious, farce of a lawsuit,” attorneys David Anziska and Jesse Strauss, who were defendants in Cooley’s suit, said of the Sixth Circuit ruling. “It was a waste of Cooley’s diminishing tuition revenue. Cooley’s money could have been better spent helping its graduates find jobs.”
Cooley general counsel James Thelen did not immediately respond to calls for comment, but in an interview several days earlier said the school hoped for a favorable ruling by the Sixth Circuit, given that the judges seemed receptive to its position during oral arguments in April.
Both defamation suits stemmed from statements the plaintiffs attorneys posted online while seeking ammunition for a class action against Cooley on behalf of graduates who claimed the school misrepresented its postgraduate employment statistics.
The Sixth Circuit ruling was the second item of bad news for Cooley in as many days. On July 1, the school announced it was “instituting a financial management plan to reduce expenses significantly and right-size the organization.”
The move would involve reductions in staff and faculty and a “systemwide review” of Cooley’s program and facilities. The school cited an imbalance between revenue and expenses.
Cooley was still developing its cost-cutting plan, and had yet to eliminate any faculty or staff positions, said James Robb, associate dean for external affairs. It was not clear how many positions might be eliminated and how much the law school needs to trim from its budget, he said.
Cooley is the largest law school in the country, with five campuses—four in Michigan and one in Florida. It has 117 full-time faculty members, according to the most recent data it submitted to the American Bar Association, and 160 part-time professors.
Administrators have already implemented one change: Cooley will not accept new first-year students at its Ann Arbor, Mich., campus in September; they will have to take classes at one of the school’s other campuses. Both the Lansing and Auburn Hills, Mich., facilities are about an hour’s drive away.
“Students are admitted to Cooley, not to any particular campus,” Robb said. “We commonly have students who are based at one campus but take classes at another. We encourage that.”
First-year students who started at the Ann Arbor campus in January and May will be allowed to continue their first-year studies there, he said. Robb did not know the size of last year’s incoming September class in Ann Arbor, but noted that location was the smallest of the school’s campuses with about 200 students total.
Overall enrollment was down at Cooley, Robb said, but he declined to offer specifics. According to data submitted to the ABA, 582 students matriculated at all of Cooley’s campuses in 2013. That was down by 62 percent from the 1,533 who matriculated in 2010. Robb could not project how many students the school expects to matriculate during the coming academic year. “Enrollment is down, as it is at most other law schools,” he said.
In its ruling, the Sixth Circuit found that Cooley was a limited-purpose public figure—meaning it must show the defendants acted with actual malice in publishing any defamatory statements.
“Cooley’s response does not demonstrate that a reasonable jury could find by clear and convincing evidence that defendants published with actual malice,” the court said.
Among those statements to which Cooley objected was a posting by Anziska on the JD Underground blog calling Cooley “perhaps one of the worst offenders” for inflating postgraduate employment data. The plaintiffs attorneys retracted that statement at the law school’s request, but Cooley filed suit on July 14, 2011, claiming defamation and tortious interference with business relations.
The plaintiffs attorneys filed their fraud class action against Cooley in August 2011, but a federal judge dismissed the case in July 2012 and was affirmed on appeal the following year.
A judge of the U.S. District Court for Western District of Michigan granted the attorneys’ request for summary judgment in Cooley’s defamation suit in September 2013.
At the same time, Kurzon filed a defamation countersuit against Cooley, claiming that statements by Cooley president and dean Don LeDuc when announcing the school’s own defamation suit were defamatory. LeDuc wrote that the administration believed the plaintiffs attorneys had “crossed the line both legally and ethically.”
Judge Laura Taylor Swain of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York on June 24 granted summary judgment in that case, ruling that her court lacked jurisdiction.