Caveat Emptor: Trying, and Failing, to Sue your Law School

Langdell Hall - Harvard

Back in 2008 the legal market collapsed alongside the rest of corporate America.  The outgoing law school graduate class began to see their start dates deferred as firms sought ways to cut payroll beyond the tens of thousands of law firm employees who suffered layoffs.  While Harvard and the other top schools saw deferments, students graduating anywhere below the top tier fared much worse.  As demand for attorney labor bottomed out, thousands of students entered a job market that had no interest in them.  Even volunteer position quickly reached capacity, leaving huge swathes of graduates who literally could not give their work away.  At some lower-tier schools, less than a third of graduates managed to find law-related jobs. 

Yet even these lower-tier schools came with six-figure price tags.

The result was thousands of students graduating law school with significant debt -- the average debt load was around $80,000, but $150,000 or more was extremely common -- with no feasible path to earn it back. 

Over the last few years, there has been a small trend in disenfranchised law students suing their former schools, claiming that they were lied to about their job prospects.  So far, these suits have pretty much universally failed; this past week the first such case to actually make it all the way to trial, Alaburda v. Thomas Jefferson School of Law, 37-2011-00091898 (Cal. Sup. Ct.), lost before a jury.  

The core of Alaburda is the students claim that Thomas Jefferson School of Law ("TJSL")  knowingly put inflated post-graduation rates into marketing materials, which was a substantial factor in students' decision to attend the school.  Though plaintiffs pointed to some discrepancies in the data itself, the argument was largely that the school failed to distinguish between legal and nonlegal employment, and failed to disclose that its sampling method was inadequate.  Plaintiffs brought a series of negligence and California consumer claims against the school.  A bid to have a class certified was denied.

It's easy to feel some schadenfreude here; Above the Law certainly does so as they gleefully list the 10 law schools that produce the highest student debt loads; suing on the basis of your sour grapes after entering a historically bad job market is not hard to paint as another expression of millennial entitlement.  

TJSL doesn't have an exact ranking, because U.S. News & World Reports doesn't number schools ranked below 145.  In 2013, TJSL reported to the ABA that just 28.8% of their 2012 graduates had full-time, long-term work that required bar admission, ranking 192 out of 197 reporting schools.  On that list I mentioned of law schools with the highest graduate debt?  TJSL is number one.  Says Above the Law, "The odds really aren’t on your side when you’ve got more than $180K in student debt and a less than 30 percent chance of securing employment as a lawyer."

If there was any case that should have succeeded, this seems like the one: the worst debt-load, a close to worst employment rate, and a school that seemed indifferent to the realistic truth of the employment figures they were citing; the plaintiffs point to discrepancies in the data sets supporting TJSL's numbers, such as pool cleaners and janitors being listed as working in fields requiring a law degree, that could only (if true) be the product of entry errors, mismanagement of the data, or misleading entry.  In fact, in filing for summary judgement against the plaintiffs, the school didn't argue directly that its numbers were correct, simply submitting an affidavit claiming the school never lied about employment numbers.

But it failed as well.

Because this was a jury trial, there's no opinion to tell us why the jury rejected the plaintiffs' claims.  In general, past lawsuits of this nature have been thrown out on the grounds that students were sophisticated enough to understand that attending law school was no guarantee of finding a successful job.  (I presume TJSL had some language somewhere in their materials disclaiming any guarantee of employment.)  In Casey v. Florida Coastal School of Law, 3:14-cv-1229-J-39PDB (M.D. Fla.), a federal district judge dismissed a similar case on reasoning that is probably pretty close to what the jury in Alaburda felt.  In Casey, the dismissal was based largely on the idea that the students were college graduates and should have known better, given the poor quality of the school they were attending (all citations omitted):

"Plaintiffs are consumers of a legal education. As such, they are college graduates and '[b]y anyone's definition . . . a sophisticated subset of education consumers, capable of sifting through data and weighing alternatives.' 

* * * 

Plaintiffs place much emphasis on the effect the employment rate reported by various news companies and Defendant's website played in misleading reasonable consumers, like Plaintiffs. Yet, Plaintiffs also acknowledge that Defendant had some of the lowest admissions standards of accredited or provisionally accredited law schools in the nation. Despite its low ranking, Plaintiffs allege that Defendant's Employment numbers rivaled 'those of much higher ranked, top-tier schools, such as the University of Florida.'  This would have been a red flag to a reasonable consumer in Plaintiffs' position, and should have caused the reasonable consumer to, at a minimum, seek out more nuanced information to allow for a meaningful comparison of law schools, including the types of employment graduates obtained. Such an inquiry was reasonably expected and could have prevented Plaintiffs' alleged injuries.  

* * * 

While the Court agrees with Plaintiffs to the extent that Defendant's alleged salary data presentation was less than candid, it was unreasonable for Plaintiffs to assume that the salary information offered by Defendants was a true and accurate representation of all graduates. Indeed, unless Plaintiffs assumed that Defendant had a full-proof method of tracking each and every one of its graduates, Plaintiffs had reason to suspect that the salary data offered only a limited picture of the salaries actually earned by Florida Coastal graduates and further inquiry would be required."

I presume a similar argument convinced the jury in Alaburda: if this number was actually a substantial factor in your decision, you should have known better given how bad the school you attended was -- let the buyer beware.

What's interesting to me is that in 2016, caveat emptor has long fallen by the wayside; there's a reason every product you buy is coated in warning labels.  Especially in California, with its consumer friendly Unfair Competition Law, you can maintain a potentially lucrative suit based on some fairly trivial statement on, say, a bag of potato chips.  Yet courts refuse to indulge in any consumer-friendly thinking when it comes to law schools.  As a 2013 law review article in the Virginia Journal of Law and Social Policy points out, "it is long-standing jurisprudence that courts have been highly deferential to post-secondary institutions."

I'm of two minds here.  On the one hand, the plaintiffs absolutely received what they should have understood to be coming to them: a legal education from a second-tier law school. There's too much potential for absurd liability if these schools are held responsible for the students' failure to find a job -- this isn't like a low-fat chip not being healthy, the job market depends on a complex interaction of millions of individuals outside any of the schools' individual control. It's one thing to sue a yoga school for instruction that strains your back, another to sue them because you didn't achieve greater enlightenment and reconnect with your estranged family. 

But while I know the schools shouldn't be liable, I feel a great deal of sympathy for the students. These are people who spent their entire lives being told that attending law school should be a life goal.  They were trying to make good.  They were probably not as "sophisticated" as the courts assume they are; maybe they don't have a social circle with experienced professionals who can explain the reality of the legal job market to them.  The federal government has spent years, with good intentions, making easy credit available to them, but on the back end making that debt non-dischargeable in bankruptcy.  Society made it all to easy for these kids to step into this trap -- which isn't too many steps away from a scam like Trump University.

Maybe TJSL didn't deceive these students as a matter of fact or law, but these kids were deceived, if only by a world that suddenly changed the rules of the game after they were already down the track.  It's a shame the law provides no vindication.