The lawsuit alleging that the DePaul University College of Law in Chicago misled prospective students by disseminating incomplete and misleading job placement data was dismissed this week in its entirety. The plaintiffs contended that this information was deceptive because it suggested that the positions referenced in the data were full-time permanent positions for which a law degree was required or preferred. In his September 12, 2012 ruling, Circuit Court of Cook County Judge Neil Cohen determined that all of the claims advanced by nine plaintiffs who graduated from DePaul’s College of Law between 2003 and 2008 (and who have since been admitted to the bar) were fatally defective for a number of different reasons.
Central to Judge Cohen’s decision was his finding that the “[p]laintiffs did not pay tuition to DePaul in return for future employment.” Rather, Judge Cohen noted:
Plaintiffs paid tuition to DePaul in return for a legal education which would prepare them to practice law. DePaul provided the service paid for by plaintiffs. Plaintiffs all earned a JD from DePaul and were all admitted to practice law. DePaul cannot be blamed for the fact that eight of the nine plaintiffs graduated at a time which was witness to a metamorphosis in the practice of law due to a number of factors not the least of which was the height of a tumultuous and deep recession that seriously affected employment in the legal profession.
The Court was not persuaded by the plaintiffs’ contention that the data DePaul recited regarding the percentage of College of Law graduates who secured employment within nine months of graduation was false or misleading. More specifically, the Court emphasized that the plaintiffs had failed to identify any representation that could be construed as a prediction of the plaintiffs’ chances of securing full-time attorney positions or as a representation that they would secure such positions at any particular salary within nine months of graduation.
The Court found that the plaintiffs could not have reasonably assumed that the employment positions described in the College of Law data were all full-time legal positions. According to Judge Cohen, “[c]ommon sense alone should have allowed Plaintiffs to determine that a graduate making $20,000 a year is not employed as a full-time lawyer.” The Court also held that there was no fiduciary relationship or other special duty owed by DePaul to the plaintiffs and that DePaul’s compliance with American Bar Association requirements regarding job placement statistics was an affirmative defense to the plaintiffs’ statutory fraud claim. Finally, the Court found that the plaintiffs had failed to identify any mechanism by which economic damages could be calculated.
In dismissing the lawsuit against DePaul, the Circuit Court of Cook County joined at least two other jurisdictions (New York and Michigan) that have dismissed similar lawsuits against other law schools. Notwithstanding these rulings, institutions should continue to exercise great caution to ensure the accuracy of any information provided to prospective students about post-graduation employment opportunities. Given the current economic climate and significant amount of debt incurred by many students, both not-for-profit and for-profit institutions alike can expect continued scrutiny of such representations not only by students and graduates but also by government agencies and regulatory bodies.