The fraud lawsuit against the Thomas Jefferson School of Law lives on.
A San Diego judge declined to dismiss the case — the first in a wave of suits brought by recent law graduates who claim their alma maters misled them with overly rosy assurances about their postgraduate job prospects.
Those suits have not fared well in court; five have been dismissed since March. However, as of the ruling in San Diego, three cases against California law schools have survived motions to dismiss.
Attorneys for Thomas Jefferson and the four plaintiffs faced off in court on November 16 during a hearing on the school’s motion for summary judgment. Superior Court Judge Joel Pressman ruled on November 29 that the plaintiffs had standing to move forward with the case.
The San Diego law school said in a formal statement that it was “disappointed” at the ruling, but sought to play down its significance. “Importantly, Judge Pressman’s ruling is not a factual determination that the plaintiff’s allegations have any merit,” the school said. “Rather, his ruling simply allows the plaintiffs to proceed with discovery even though the court acknowledges that the original plaintiff was offered a full time position as an attorney within nine months of graduation.”
In the weeks leading to the hearing, the law school filed papers alleging that named plaintiff Anna Alaburda — a 2008 graduate who claims she has struggled to find full-time legal work — turned down a $60,000-a-year job with a Southern California law firm not long after she graduated. For their part, attorneys representing the plaintiffs submitted a sworn statement from a former employee of the school’s career services office that her boss pressured her to present the school’s 2006 employment data in the best possible light.
In court filings and during the November 16 hearing, the law school argued that Alaburda’s fraud claims are barred by the statute of limitations; that she was not injured by the school’s actions; that she failed to mitigate her damages; and that she is not covered as a consumer under the state’s Consumer Legal Remedies Act.
The law school argued that the statute of limitations began running following her first year in law school in 2006; that’s when Alaburda has testified that she first felt misled about the quality of her education at Thomas Jefferson. Alaburda’s attorneys countered that she didn’t suspect there was a problem with the school’s employment numbers until January 8, 2011, when The New York Times published an article alleging law schools had manipulated employment data for their graduates. She sued the following May.
Pressman ruled that there was “insufficient evidence that plaintiff Alaburda knew facts or should have known facts supporting the alleged misrepresentation regarding employment data” before publication of the Times article.
Pressman also rejected the law school’s claim that Alaburda has not established injury as a result of its alleged behavior, citing the $60,000 job offer. “In this case, Alaburda was not specifically bargaining for a job,” Pressman wrote. “She bargained for a legal education. Representations regarding that legal education are material to the decision of whether to enroll.”
Finally, attorneys for the law school argued that the Consumer Legal Remedies Act does not apply to a law school education because it is not a “good” or a “service” and that students are not “consumers.” Pressman rejected those claims.
In its statement, Thomas Jefferson said it did nothing wrong. “[The law school's] policy has been to report accurate employment data in compliance with both ABA and NALP guidelines,” it said. “We will continue to vigorously defend [the law school] against these meritless claims.”
Karen Sloan is a reporter for The National Law Journal, a Legal affiliate based in New York. •