December 19, 2007
Sign of the Apocalypse: Suing Over Grades
Posted by Christine Hurt

I think even the most pro-plaintiff of us (that would be me) will start screaming for tort reform when law students start suing us over grades.  The National Law Journal obviously knows our deepest fears, and a recent article uses this attention-grabbing headline:  Don't Like Your Grade?  Sue Your Law School.  However, most of the examples given in the article are not very frivolous, and most would not be characterized as lawsuits over the substance of a grade.  The nightmare scenario for me is when students file lawsuits because "she gave me 15 points out of 20 on this essay question, but it's really worth 18 points."  These examples are very different.  I've listed the examples in order of strength of allegations, in my opinion:

  • "A group of students filed a $120 million class action against the American Justice School of Law in Paducah, Ky., on Nov. 17, citing allegations that include tax fraud, false representation to the American Bar Association, racketeering, scheming to defraud students and obstruction of justice. Rust v. American Justice School of Law, No. 5:07CV-191-R (W.D. Ky.)."
  • "Also last month, Lisa Dawn Rittenhouse filed a lawsuit against Southern Illinois University School of Law in Carbondale after she was told not to return for her second year because her first-year grade-point average was 1.948, just below the minimum 1.95 needed to continue.  Rittenhouse, who is white and has learning disabilities, claims that she was discriminated against while minority students without handicaps who had lower averages were allowed to return. Rittenhouse v. Southern Illinois University School of Law, No. 07-CV-00763-MJR-PMP (S.D. Ill.)."
  • "Late last month, Adam Key, a second-year law student, sued Regent University School of Law, a private Christian school in Virginia Beach, Va., claiming violations of his right to free speech and religion after getting expelled for posting a critique in an online university forum. Key v. Regent University, No. 4:07-CV-04060 (S.D. Texas)."
  • "On Nov. 14, John Valente, a second-year student at University of Dayton School of Law in Ohio, filed a complaint against his school, citing negligence in dealing with exam software. Valente v. University of Dayton Law School of Law, No. 07-9593 (Montgomery Co., Ohio, Ct. C.P.)."  Valente "alleges that some students used a loophole that allowed them to transfer answers to the test, thereby negatively affecting his grade and preventing him for competing for a position on the University of Dayton Law Review. "
  • "On Oct. 10, Clayton Hallford, a former first-year student at Florida A&M University College of Law in Orlando, filed a lawsuit claiming that one of his professors used questions from a commercial test guide in an exam, putting him and others without the guide at a disadvantage. Hallford also challenges the grading policy used, citing those issues as reasons behind his academic dismissal. Hallford v. Florida A&M College of Law, No. 2007-CA-01307 (Orange Co., Fla., Cir. Ct.). "

The last two are the only complaints that seem to strike at the heart of the grading process, and the one regarding exam software is still more procedural than substantive.  However, I can't imagine that either of these two claims will be successful.  In fact, I've witnessed a situation exactly like the last example (a professor used the exact same essay test as in the past year, and one study group had a second-year mentor who had used the hypos (from memory) as study materials).  I don't believe there was a lawsuit over that one, but there were definitely complaints!

A law student who resorts to litigation must be using this tactic as a last resort (like the woman who is being expelled).  Such litigation tends to brand the law student in the marketplace and rarely achieves any kind of success.  In such a clubby profession as law, former plaintiffs are well-known and not universally respected.  I was in law school at Texas during the time when various groups were trying to recruit white males who had been rejected by UT to be plaintiffs in what became the Hopwood case.  Needless to say, recruiting took a long time.

Hat tip:  Tracy McGaugh.

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