Tuesday, April 23, 2013

claims against allegedly misleading law school employment statistics survive

Harnish v. Widener University School of Law, --- F.Supp.2d ----, 2013 WL 1149166 (D.N.J. Mar. 20, 2013)

Widener is an ABA-accredited law school with a very high admittance rate.  Each year it enrolls approximately 1600 students, though in 2008 23% of first-year students failed to matriculate in the second year.  Plaintiffs alleged that Widener is a “lower tier” law school.  Annual cost was about $55,000/year, and the average Widener student graduates with $111,909 in debt.

Plaintiffs were eight graduates from between 2008-2011.  Each alleged that their law degree didn’t result in satisfactory legal employment; a graduate allegedly needs to make at least $138,000 annually to repay $100,000 without enduring financial hardship, or $92,000 annually to repay the debt with financial difficulty.  They sued for common law fraud and related claims on behalf of a class.

The basic challenge was to Widener’s marketing materials and reporting practices between 2005 and 2011. At some point, Widener’s website stated “[a]s a graduate of Widener Law, you’ll join a network of more than 12,000 alumni in 50 states, the District of Columbia, and 15 countries and territories who are using their Widener Law degrees to pursue successful, rewarding careers.” On its “Employment Statistics and Trends” page, it claimed 90% and over employment statistics for various classes, referring to the “employment rate” and then to the “employment/advanced degree rate” for the class of 2010.

Plaintiffs alleged that the employment statistics were misleading because they didn’t disclose that the numbers included full and part time legal, law-related and non-legal positions; that when a graduate responded to Widener’s surveys that the graduate wasn’t seeking work, Widener simply didn’t count the graduate; that Widener counted graduates as employed even if they’d only gotten employment shortly before the survey; that it counted graduates as employed if they’d “out of desperation” started a solo practice without confirming whether they were licensed in their jurisdictions; and that it didn’t disclose a high nonresponse rate to the survey.

In 2011, Widener added more specific employment data: “Graduates of the Class of 2010 had a 93% employment / advanced degree program participation rate. This rate includes full and part time legal, law-related and non-legal positions as well as advanced degree program participation within nine months of graduation. For more information, please download a comprehensive summary of employment statistics (PDF).”

Plaintiffs further alleged that Widener misled students by reporting its misleading placement and salary statistics to US News and the ABA, which reported high employment rates for Widener, artificially boosting Widener’s ranking and misleading law students who relied on US News.

They alleged violations of New Jersey and Delaware’s consumer fraud acts with respect to placement rates/employment data and also for “[m]aking deceptive and misleading statements, representations and omissions concerning [Widener’s] reputation with potential employers,” the value of a Widener degree, and the “pace” at which graduates can obtain gainful legal employment.  This allegedly got students to pay inflated tuition.  They sought injunctive relief, disgorgement and restitution of $75 million (the difference between the inflated tuition and the true value of a Widener degree), punitive damages, and other relief, including civil penalties of $10,000 for violations that affected elderly or disabled persons under the statutes.

The court began by noting that the NJCFA was intended to be one of the strongest in the country and should be construed liberally.  Pleading a violation requires (1) unlawful conduct; (2) an ascertainable loss; and (3) a causal relationship between the unlawful conduct and the ascertainable loss.  To be unlawful, affirmative acts must be “ ‘misleading’ and stand outside the norm of reasonable business practice in that it will victimize the average consumer.” This is usually a jury question but can sometimes be decided on a motion to dismiss.

Though the allegations of false placement rates were unsupported by specific facts, allegations of deception and misinterpretation were still plausible—literally true statements can be misleading to an average consumer.  Other courts have concluded that no reasonable person could believe that a statement about an employment rate, with no further qualification, refers only to legal employment, but the court here disagreed.  “Perception is often affected by location of the object. Here, we have data displayed above the category of ‘Full Time Legal Employers.’ Why should a reasonable student looking to go to law school consider that data to include non law-related and part-time employment? 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 court continued: Widener’s website, which promoted a professional school, functioned to persuade prospective students to attend Widener.  “Within this context, it is not implausible that a prospective law student making the choice of whether or which law school to attend, would believe that the employment rate referred to law related employment.”

It was true that there was a wealth of information outside the Widener website that would have indicated that Widener was reporting an aggregate employment statistic. But New Jersey doesn’t require reliance, only a causal nexus between the concealment of material facts and loss.  The NJCFA is intended to “promote the disclosure of relevant information to enable the consumer to make intelligent decisions,” so “[a] practice can be unlawful even if no person was in fact misled or deceived thereby.” There was at least a thread of plausibility to the allegations at the motion to dismiss stage.

Turning to the allegations of deceptive omissions, a plaintiff must show knowing concealment of a material fact with the intent that the plaintiff rely on the concealment.  Knowledge can be alleged generally under Rule 9(b).  The court found that the alleged omissions “concerning [Widener]’s reputation with potential employers ... concerning the value of a [Widener] degree ... concerning the rate at which recent graduates can obtain gainful employment in their chosen field and [c]ausing students to pay inflated tuition based on ... omissions, including, specifically that approximately 90–95 percent of [Widener] graduates secure gainful employment” were plausibly material.  What made the posted employment rate misleading was the failure to disclose that the rate referred to all types of employment, and that it was allegedly inflated by selectively disregarding data. This was enough to plead a knowing omission under the NJCFA.

As for ascertainable loss, all that is required is an estimate calculated with a reasonable degree of certainty.  Plaintiffs alleged loss representing the difference between the inflated tuition they paid and the true value of a Widener degree, since they alleged that they wouldn’t have paid the same amount if they’d been aware of the true job placement rate and salary statistics.  This was enough.

The required causal nexus means proximate cause, though plaintiffs don’t need to prove that the defendant’s conduct was the sole cause of damages.  Widener argued that job searches are subjective, meaning that there was no causal nexus to the damage.  But the claimed nexus was between the allegedly misleading statements and the purchase of legal education from Widener. The plaintiffs argued that they wouldn’t have paid over $30,000/year in tuition if they’d known that only 56% of graduates had jobs that require or use a law degree, and that was enough to plead a claim given the broad remedial purposes of the NJCFA.

The Delaware CFA claims were essentially identical, so they survived too.

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