In a recent turn of events, two students at the Charlotte School of Law in North Carolina have filed a lawsuit against the institution. In the lawsuit, the two students, Robert C. Barchiesi and Lejla Hadzic, claim the for-profit school hid ongoing academic issues in order to continue collecting tuition money. Tuition and expenses at the school is about $60,000 a year. The lawsuit names $5 million in damages for the named plaintiffs, as well as other students affected.
The lawsuit comes after a December 31 announcement that federal student aid will be cut off by the US Department of Education for misleading prospective and current students regarding the school’s accreditation by the American Bar Association. This was the first time in US history a fully-accredited law school has lost access to student loans and other financial aid. Within the class action suit, the Charlotte School of Law is accused of engaging in misrepresentation, breach of fiduciary duty, unjust enrichment and constructive fraud.
A History of Problems
The Charlotte School of Law has seen its fair share of issues when it comes to the American Bar Association. As far back as March of 2014, the ABA scrutinized the school over its lacking on admissions, bar exam pass rates and overall academic rigor. January of 2015 was when the school was first told it was failing to meet certain standards.They repeated their warning in February and July of 2016 as well. Those warnings came with the demand that the CSL tell their students what was happening — the school did not.
The school appealed the finding, but the ABA upheld its ruling in October. The next month, the school was put on a two-year probation and the ABA findings were made public. However, CSL maintained its accreditation. Finally, in December, the US Department of Education stated that they would be pulling all federal aid from the school. Of the about 700 students at the school, it is unclear how many receive federal aid, but the school received nearly $50 million in federal aid in 2015.
However, the CSL’s problems go back even further, to the founding of the school in 2006. Before the school opened, Charlotte was the largest city in the United States without a law school. When the first 53 students graduated in 2009, only 67 percent of them passed. That was the lowest rate among the seven law schools in the country. For comparison, Elon University opened its law school in 2006 as well. Of the 98 first graduates from there, 83 percent passed the bar. In 2016, the CSL pass rate for the bar hit a low of 35 percent.
In an effort to correct the ship (or perhaps to appease critics), CSL has asked Camille Davidson, the school’s academic dean in charge of curriculum, to step down. The request came specifically from Jay Conison, the head dean at CSL. Davidson is a Georgetown Law graduate and, according to a former colleague, regularly shielded the faculty and students from InfiLaw, which operates CSL as well as law schools in Arizona and Florida. In fact, lawsuit plaintiff Barchiesi described Davidson as “tough but fair,” and an “excellent professor.”
However, Conison has had trouble with the ABA before. In November of 2016, the Valparaiso University Law School in Indiana was reprimanded by the accreditation board for failing to meet admission standards by accepting students who would not do well in law school. The current dean at Valparaiso said the censure covered the years between 2007 to 2013 — when Conison was the dean there. Now, CSL faculty seem to be withdrawing their support for the dean. In a recent open letter, they blamed the institutions problems on “key but unnamed decision-makers.”
The Future of the Charlotte School of Law
On January 10, the Department of Education confirmed it had met with CSL officials to discuss a government program usually reserved for schools that are on the brink of shutting down. This program, called a “teach-out,” is defined as “a written course of action a school that is closing will take to ensure its students are treated fairly with regard to finishing their programs of study. Some plans include written agreements between the closed school and other schools that are still open for teaching.”
However, a recent announcement from the school states that it will reopen for the spring semester. To do so, at least 500 students needed to commit to taking classes in the spring. But, the school has also announced it would not be accepting new students for this semester. Though it is unclear what the future of the school looks like, it does appear students who are one semester away from graduating will be able to leave the school with an accredited law degree.
Regardless of the outcome of the lawsuit, students who attended the CSL may be eligible to have their federal loans forgiven under borrower defense. This is reserved for students whose schools committed fraud, misled them or otherwise broke certain laws.
There is no court date set as of yet for the class action lawsuit. You can find the full text of the lawsuit here.