Paul L. Caron

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Federal District Court Allows Placement Data Lawsuit to Proceed Against Widener Law School

Widener LogoHarnish v. Widener University School of Law, No. 2:12-cv-00608 (D. N.J. Mar. 20, 2013):

Defendant The Delaware Law School of Widener University, Inc. (“Widener”) moves for dismissal of Plaintiffs’ Amended Class Action Complaint (“Amended Complaint”) pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6). Plaintiffs’ Amended Complaint alleges Widener posted to its website, and disseminated to third-party law school evaluators, misleading and incomplete graduate employment rates in violation of New Jersey and Delaware Consumer Fraud Acts. ...

The crux of Plaintiffs’ claims arises from Widener’s marketing materials and reporting practices between 2005 and 2011. At an unspecified time, 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.” And over the years, on its website page entitled “Employment Statistics and Trends,” Widener updated its employment information as follows:  

a. “Graduates of the Class of 2004 had a 90% employment rate within nine months of graduation.”
b. “Graduates of the Class of 2005 had a 90% employment rate within nine months of graduation.”
c. “Graduates of the Class of 2007 had a 96% employment advanced degree rate within nine months of graduation.”
d. “Employment within nine months of graduation of over 91% for Class of 2008.”
e. “Employment within nine months of graduation of over 92% for Class of 2009.”
f. “Graduates of the Class of 2010 had a 93% employment/advanced degree rate within nine months of graduation.” ...

Under somewhat similar facts about a different law school, two New York Supreme Courts, and a New York Appellate Court affirmance, concluded that no reasonable person could be misled to believe a statement referring to an employment rate refers to legal employment only. ... This Court disagrees. ... The study of law is the learning of a profession. Widener’s website promotes a professional school. Its function is to persuade a prospective law student to attend Widener in order to receive a degree in law. The employment rate was disseminated to third-party evaluators to establish Widener’s standing among law schools. 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. ...

A Michigan District Court considering a similar case brought against a different law school concluded, “‘basic deductive reasoning,’ informs a reasonable person that the employment statistic includes all employed graduates, not just those who obtained or started full-time legal positions.” ... This Court disagrees. ... [A]n employment rate upwards of 90% plausibly gave false assurance to prospective students regarding their legal employment opportunities upon investment in and attainment of a Widener degree. While the thread of plausibility may be slight, it is still a thread. At this motion to dismiss stage, under New Jersey’s broad remedial statute, Plaintiffs have sufficiently pled an unlawful affirmative act under the NJCFA. ...

Plaintiffs have made plausible allegations, the credibility of which may well be determined only by the fact-finder, a jury. It follows then that Defendant’s Motion to Dismiss is denied.

(Hat Tip:  Legal Ethics Forum.)

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