Widener University School of Law graduates unable to find jobs in their profession can go forward with a suit charging they were misled about the school’s placement success rate.
Denying a motion to dismiss on Wednesday, U.S. District Judge William Walls in Newark found plausible the students’ claims that the school — in boasting that more than 90 percent of graduates found jobs within nine months — blurred the line between legal and nonlegal employment.
That would mean a law firm associate and a coffee bar attendant each count as one tick.
"Why should a reasonable student looking to go to law school consider that data to include non law-related and part-time employment?" Walls wrote in Harnish v. Widener University School of Law, 12-cv-00608.
"Should that student think that going to Widener Law School would open employment as a public school teacher, full or part time, or an administrative assistant, or a sales clerk, or a medical assistant?"
The eight plaintiffs, who graduated between 2008 and 2011, include John Harnish, who works as a bartender; Robert Klein, who has a nonlegal job with the federal government; Megan Shafranski, who says her salary as an attorney is not enough to cover her debt; and Justin Schluth, who is unemployed.
The suit, framed as a class action, alleges violations of the New Jersey Consumer Fraud Act and the Delaware Consumer Fraud Act and seeks injunctive relief against "fraudulent and deceptive business practices."
The plaintiffs also are seeking restitution of $75 million, which they say is the difference between the inflated tuition paid by class members and the true value of a Widener degree.
Widener tuition and board come to roughly $55,000 a year, and the suit says the average Widener student graduates with $111,000 in debt.
Walls found the plaintiffs demonstrated that Widener engaged in unlawful conduct by the affirmative fact of claiming an employment rate upward of 90 percent, giving "false assurance."
Widener, on its website and in communications to third parties such as U.S. News & World Report, claimed a job success rate of 91 percent for the class of 2008, 92 percent for the class of 2009 and 93 percent for the class of 2010.
In 2011, Widener modified its website to say the 93 percent employment rate for the class of 2010 "includes full and part-time legal, law-related and nonlegal positions as well as advanced degree program participation."
Similarly, he found that the plaintiffs sufficiently pleaded a knowing omission of notice that the graduation rate, before 2011, included nonlegal employment.
Walls also said the plaintiffs made a showing of ascertainable loss by asserting they would not have paid the tuition charged if aware of the job-placement rate and salary statistics.
And they sufficiently pleaded a causal nexus between the allegedly misleading statements and their decision to attend Widener, Walls added.
He said his analysis applied to both states’ statutes because they have nearly identical pleading requirements.
The suit is one of a dozen brought against law schools in 2011 and 2012 by New York lawyers David Anziska and Jesse Strauss and all making similar claims.
Suits have been dismissed against six — Albany Law School, New York Law School, John Marshall University Law School, Chicago-Kent College of Law, DePaul University Law School and Thomas Cooley Law School.
Five others, all in California — California Western School of Law, Golden Gate University School of Law, the University of San Francisco School of Law, Thomas Jefferson School of Law and Southwestern Law School — survived motions to dismiss.
Widener’s lawyer, James Orr of Wilson, Elser, Moskowitz, Edelstein & Dicker in Florham Park, did not return a call.
Widener spokesman Dan Hansen said in a statement that the school follows reporting procedures set by the American Bar Association and "we stand by our employment numbers."
He adds, "Our students have consistently proven to be competitive in finding jobs" despite the troubled economy.
Local counsel in the Widener case are David Stone and Jason Spiro of Stone & Magnanini in Short Hills. Spiro says Walls’ ruling demonstrates that "the judge was keyed into our argument."