The Supreme Court of Westchester County recently heard the very interesting case of Alissa S. v. Manhattanville College – an interesting case bringing into issue the exact nature of the relationship between a student and his or her institution of higher education. There is a long tradition of students suing their college or university over a variety of matters, and as we shall see here, the essential theories of many of these lawsuits have been premised in contract law principles.
Background of the Case
Alissa S. (hereafter “The Student”) was enrolled at Manhattanville College (hereafter “The College”) to get her Master’s degree in teaching. Part of the requirement was to do a certain amount of supervised teaching at a local school – in other words, to be what is known as a student teacher.
The judicial record is silent on exactly what happened in the classroom, but at any rate the College sent the Student a notice saying that her conduct during her student teaching at the local school was completely unprofessional and inappropriate and furthermore that her teaching skills were inadequate. For all of these reasons, the College was issuing the Student a failing grade of “F.” The letter from the College’s Associate Dean went on to say that because of a pattern of unprofessional conduct the Student would no longer be allowed to enroll in any further education courses at the College.
The Student successfully appealed this decision, and the College gave her a second chance to do her student teaching. However, there continued to be trouble and the College once again gave the student a grade of “F” for poor conduct and refused to recommend her for certification as a teacher. Once again, the record before us is largely silent as to what this questionable conduct by the Student actually was.
One thing led to another, and the Student eventually became the plaintiff in the case before us. One of the plaintiff’s primary allegations is breach of contract, which is an interesting theory to say the least, because there was no express written contract entered into by the student and college that was exactly on point to this lawsuit.
Colleges and Contractual Liability
The court turned its discussion to the idea of an implied contract between a student and her college. Articulating the New York standard the court said that when admitted, an implied contract arises: if the student follows all of the college’s rules and procedures and comports with academic standards (including passing all required classes, etc) then the college will award the appropriate degree sought. The case cited is Olson v. Board of Higher Ed.However New York courts have historically shown a reluctance to get involved in actual matters of academic standards – citing a degree of deference to the professional judgment of these institutions, which they view as specialized and especially capable of making academic standards decisions. Cases like this, involving how a student’s qualifications are evaluated, receive a great deal of deference. There is a long discussion, but it boils down to the idea that a university, in granting a degree, is certifying to the world that a student meets certain minimum standards, and this certification (in the form of diplomas, professional degrees, etc) is something in which society places a great deal of trust.
Universities are not completely immune from judicial review. However the breach of contract action fails for several reasons. The University gave plaintiff two chances to complete the training, and then a chance to get a different, but related, teaching degree. Going back to the contractual thinking mentioned above, the University gave the student ample chance to comply with any implied contract – and she failed to do so. The one remaining applicable question is whether the University acted in an arbitrary, unfair, or capricious way in giving her a failing grade. However, such a question is not proper for a breach of contract case, it should be brought as a CPLR Article 78 proceeding – and in this case, such a claim would be time-barred by the 4-month statute of limitations.
When student-university relationships go sour, the ensuing litigation is often premised on breach of an implied contract. It is imperative to retain counsel experienced in these matters. Please do not hesitate to contact our office for a consultation.