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Class Action Hits Law School

Courts: Former students sue Chapman University, charging that it lied about credentials.

July 01, 2001|MONTE MORIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

They dropped out of law school halfway through, but that was apparently all the education they needed to grasp the fundamental lesson of lawyering.

In a case that gives new meaning to the term "class action," more than a dozen former law students at Chapman University are suing the institution, charging that the university conned them into enrolling at what was then a second-rate law school struggling for recognition.

The students, who say they dropped out because they feared the experience would ruin their nascent law careers, are demanding reimbursement for tuition, as well as payment of the hundreds of thousands of dollars that they say they might have banked had they graduated on time and become bona fide attorneys.

The case, which is being heard in Orange County Superior Court in Santa Ana, focuses on the law school's troubled first years as well as its initial failed attempts to win accreditation by the American Bar Assn. The suit charges that officials sought to conceal the trouble they were having getting accreditation to prevent students and their dollars from fleeing the campus.

"The school wasn't friendly in its dealings with students, and it wasn't ethical," said Steven Madison, one of several lawyers representing the students. "In our state, it's against the law to lie to people to get their money."

Law School Repays $1 Million in Tuition

Law school officials strongly deny the charges and insist they dealt honestly with all of their students. They say that despite a rocky start, the school successfully graduated its inaugural class on schedule. It also took the unprecedented step of paying back more than $1 million in tuition fees to students who had grown nervous about the school and wanted to quit.

But even as school officials deny the charges, they take pains to say that Chapman Law School is a very different place than it was when it opened in 1995 with new administrators and faculty.

"We believe the court will find no merit in this case," said Ruth Wardwell, a university spokeswoman. "It's disappointing and disheartening though. Lawsuits are always a blemish. It's particularly difficult to read about it when you're trying to recruit students."

Among other charges, the students say that the school lied to them when it promised it would win accreditation easily. The college boasted in its catalogs that it offered some of the nation's finest legal scholars and said that many of its faculty were recently named professor of the year.

The suit charges that in reality, experience and honors were thin among the faculty, and the school's first dean had no previous experience in such a post.

Failure to Win ABA Accreditation

Even more troubling though, according to former students, was the school's initial failure to gain ABA accreditation.

Among the hurdles to accreditation were the school's lack of a permanent building, concerns about lax grading and the quality of the faculty.

With many students fearing the school would not be accredited in time, Madison said they "had to decide whether to cut their losses, leave the school, take a leave of absence, or roll the dice and stay at Chapman Law School."

It was at that time that the school decided to refund the students' annual $17,000 tuition if they wanted to leave. By taking the reimbursement though, students barred themselves from taking legal action.

In all, almost four dozen students refused the reimbursement and have filed suit against the school.

Today, Chapman University's law school holds provisional accreditation by the ABA, and more than 200 students are enrolled.

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