In Lam v. University of Western Ontario, 2019 ONCA 82, the Ontario Court of Appeal confirmed that a court may take jurisdiction over a claim that arises from an academic dispute between a student and a university.
Simon Lam was a Ph.D. student enrolled at the University of Western Ontario when his thesis supervisor unexpectedly passed away. Mr. Lam’s research was in a highly specialized area of biochemistry, and the death of his supervisor resulted in some uncertainty as to the continued availability of funding and supervision. Mr. Lam told the Court that he transferred out of the Ph.D program and into a Master’s program under pressure from a supervisory committee to do so and based on the committee’s advice that further funding was not available.
Mr. Lam subsequently commenced an action for damages against the University, claiming that the supervisory committee: (i) lacked and was unwilling to acquire the necessary expertise to supervise the completion of his Ph.D.; and (ii) knowingly misrepresented the availability and security of his funding. He argued that the pressure the committee imposed on him to change his program was a breach of contract and a breach of the University’s fiduciary duty to him, resulting in a loss of income, pain and suffering and out-of-pocket expenses.
The University moved for summary judgement on the basis that the claim related to “purely academic” decisions and, thus, the appropriate forum for resolution was the University’s internal academic appeal process rather than a court of law. The motion judge agreed and dismissed the claim.
Mr. Lam appealed. The Court of Appeal for Ontario set aside the motion judge’s decision and ordered the matter to proceed to trial.
Relying on earlier Court of Appeal decisions, the Court held that it has jurisdiction to hear a claim by a student against a university, even if the dispute arose from an academic or educational activity, provided that the alleged facts constitute a cause of action based in tort or breach of contract.
The Court’s analysis highlighted four principles:
- The relationship between a student and a university has a contractual foundation, giving rise to a university’s duties in contract and tort. This was an important point for Mr. Lam, as he had alleged breach of contract.
- A student who enrolls at a university agrees to adhere to the institution’s discretion in resolving academic matters. This proposition is best understood as an implied term of the contract between university and student.
- It is the remedy sought that is indicative of jurisdiction, and not whether the claim arises from a matter that is academic in nature.
- A claim by a student against a university cannot succeed if it is, in fact, an indirect attempt to appeal an academic decision. In such a case, judicial review would be the appropriate course of action.
The Court’s examination of the contractual relationship between the appellant student and the respondent institution included consideration of the University’s Graduate Student Handbook, which the Court found contained contractual terms. In addition, the Court found that the University is subject to a “general duty of honesty in contractual performance.”
This case raises interesting questions about what might constitute stated or implied contractual terms. The Court of Appeal clarified that written documents published by an institution, such as a Graduate Student Handbook, may be relied upon as evidence of contractual obligations. Policies and procedures, along with other website materials, could, therefore, be found to have similar weight. Institutions are thus cautioned to avoid aspirational statements in drafting such documents and focus instead on content for which they are prepared to be held accountable.