Politics & Government

Lawsuits grow over Charlotte School of Law woes; students plan Wednesday rally

More students have filed lawsuits against embattled Charlotte School of Law, which became the first accredited law school ever to lose access to federal loans. The school had until Tuesday to appeal the Department of Education’s action.
More students have filed lawsuits against embattled Charlotte School of Law, which became the first accredited law school ever to lose access to federal loans. The school had until Tuesday to appeal the Department of Education’s action. Michael Gordon

The legal challenges continue to mount against embattled Charlotte School of Law, which had a deadline Tuesday to appeal the federal cut-off of tens of millions of dollars in federal student aid.

CSL is the country’s first accredited law school to lose access to student loans and other money administered by the U.S. Department of Education. The agency’s decision has left hundreds of students scrambling to find other means of paying for tuition and fees of about $60,000 a year.

Government documents last month accused the school of misleading students and the public about its graduates’ performance on the state bar exam, their success rate in finding jobs within the legal profession, and CSL’s troubled standing before the accrediting American Bar Association.

Education officials said it cut off the money because the school’s admission policy and curriculum left students unprepared for legal work and saddled with heavy debt that they have little chance of paying back. That leaves taxpayers footing the bill for unpaid loans.

The ABA put the school on two years’ probation in November. The Department of Education announced last month it was revoking the school’s access to loans and other taxpayer supported dollars, effective Dec. 31.

Two groups of students already have filed class-action, federal lawsuits accusing the school of deception and fraud, among other violations. Students also are planning a rally outside the College Street offices of the school on Wednesday if the financial crisis has not been resolved.

In the latest complaint, students Spencer Krebs, Morgan Switzer, Dave Wyatt and Chester Roberts charge the school and its leaders with “knowingly misrepresenting” CSL’s compliance with bar association standards to maintain enrollment. As a result, they and other students have been consigned “to years of indentured servitude” by being saddled “with crushing, non-dischargeable debt that will take literally decades to pay off.”

In their last statement to students and alumni on Friday, CSL leaders said they remain “cautiously optimistic” that the money will be restored and classes will resume on schedule this month. However, the school also said that because of the “uncertainty” over tuition loans, it will not be admitting new students in January. On the surface that appears to be another financial blow against the for-profit school.

The DOE has cut off money to more than 40 schools over the past three budget years. Only four of those institutions have successfully appealed and reversed that decision, government spokesmen say.

CSL President Chidi Ogene and Jay Conison, the law school’s dean, also said school leaders are working on a transfer plan with Florida Coastal School of Law, an arrangement that Ogene and Conison say “would protect our students and ensure that they can complete their program of education.” The Florida school and CSL are part of the InfiLaw group, which also operates a for-profit law school in Arizona.

Under a 2006 change in the federal Direct PLUS loan program, students admitted to accredited programs such as the Charlotte School of Law can borrow the full cost of attendance – tuition and expenses – directly from the government. But critics say there is little oversight on whether the students can be reasonably expected to repay the debt. In other words, the schools get their money, but the taxpayers in many cases are left with the check for the unpaid loans.

Legal observers say students at CSL can be expected to amass debts of up to $200,000 over their three years of classes. Yet, in a 2014 article for Atlantic Monthly magazine, University of Colorado law professor Paul Campos estimated that only 1 percent of InfiLaw’s 2013 graduates earned federal court clerkships or jobs with large law firms that justified taking on a six-figure debt.

School leaders did not respond to Observer questions seeking details about their appeal and their plans for the upcoming semester, which is scheduled to open in two weeks.

Charlotte attorney Gary Jackson, part of a legal team representing 45 current and former Charlotte School of Law students, said more legal action will be filed if “students continue to get the run-around from the school.”

Had Charlotte School of Law disclosed all the facts about its situation as ordered by the bar association last summer, “many of these students would have chosen other options,” Jackson said.

“Now they may not be able to graduate and will still be saddled with enormous debt. I mean, it really is a travesty.”

Michael Gordon: 704-358-5095, @MikeGordonOBS