Litigating Academic Decisions

It's Academic show at WMAQ-TV in 1967. The team is from Chicago's Kennedy High School.

             It is not uncommon for a student to be disappointed with a grade or other academic decision.  Most educational institutions have a grievance or appeal procedure for students in such situations.  However, a student who does not utilize an educational institution’s internal procedures or who remains disappointed after doing so may wonder if a lawsuit is a viable mechanism to further challenge the decision of the educational institution.  The answer is usually no.

            The United States Supreme Court has repeatedly stated that “Courts are particularly ill-equipped to evaluate academic performance.”  Board of Curators of University of Missouri v. Horowitz, 435 U.S. 78, 92 (1978); see also Regents of University of Michigan v. Ewing, 474 U.S. 214, 225 (1985) (“Considerations of profound importance counsel restrained judicial review of the substance of academic decisions.”)  Therefore, “[s]ince the Ninth Century, when the first European university was established in Salerno,” universities have been given great deference with respect to academic decisions.  Bilut v. Northwestern University, 269 Ill. App. 3d 125, 134 (1994); see also Ewing, 474 U.S. at 225 (Courts “should show great respect for the faculty’s professional judgment.”); Horowitz, 435 U.S. at 96, n. 6 (Courts should give universities “the widest range of discretion[.]”) (Powell, J., concurring); Love v. Duke University, 776 F. Supp. 1070, 1075 (M.D.N.C. 1991) (“Since academic dismissals are wholly discretionary, great deference must be given to these decisions.”)

            When courts review academic decision they apply the “arbitrary and capricious” standard of review.  Love, 776 F. Supp. at 1074.  Courts have repeatedly stated that:  “So long as conduct of educators is not high-handed, arbitrary or capricious, educators should be left alone to do their job without interference from the judiciary.”  Id.; see also Bilut, 269 Ill. App. 3d at 135 (same); Banks v. Dominican College, 35 Cal. App. 4th 1545, 1551 (1995) (same); Bain v. Howard University, 968 F. Supp. 2d 294, 298 (D.D.C. 2013) (same).  “A plaintiff’s burden of establishing arbitrary and capricious conduct on the part of a private college or university, however, is a heavy one.  A plaintiff must show that his dismissal was without any discernable rational basis.”  Bilut, 269 Ill. App. 3d at 135 (citations omitted).  “Courts have adopted this deferential standard because of their reluctance to interfere with the academic affairs of a private college or university.”  Id.

            “In keeping with this highly deferential standard of review, cases challenging academic dismissals often will appropriately be resolved as a matter of law at summary judgment[.]”  Banks, 35 Cal. App. 4th at 1551; see also Bain, 968 F. Supp. 2d at 298. To avoid summary judgment, a plaintiff must present evidence to show that there was no rational basis for the decision.  Banks, 35 Cal. App. 4th at 1551-52 (“An essential element of all claims such as appellant’s, which seek to challenge an academic decision of a private university, is proof that the decision was arbitrary and capricious, because it was not based upon any discernable legitimate, rational basis.”); see also Bain, 968 F. Supp. 2d at 298; Alden, 734 A.2d at 1110.  Therefore, as long as any “discernable rational basis” exists, summary judgment should be entered in favor of the university.  Bilut, 269 Ill. App. 3d at 136.

            Courts have also noted that this standard of review is even more deferential with respect to decisions of medical schools.  In Alden v. Georgetown University, 734 A.2d 1103 (D.C. App. 1999), the Court explained that “[t]his rule of judicial nonintervention is particularly appropriate in the health care field where the students who receive degrees will provide care to the public and because courts are not supposed to be learned in medicine and are not qualified to pass opinion as to the attainments of a student in medicine.”  Id. at 1109-110; see also Bain, 968 F. Supp. 2d at 298 (same); Bilut, 269 Ill. App. 3d. at 134 (“Private educational institutions such as defendant have an interest in promoting the academic well being of their students, and in ensuring that the students to whom they award degrees, especially those who will become healthcare providers, will safely serve the public.”)

            Therefore, unless a student has a sufficient factual basis to allege that no rational basis exists to support the decision, then filing a lawsuit would not be an appropriate mechanism to challenge the academic decision.  A student will probably be best served by (in addition to studying hard and obtaining a satisfactory grade in the first instance) taking full advantage of any internal appeal procedures provided by the educational institution, as courts have repeatedly explained that the educational institutions, not the courts, are best equipped to review academic decisions.

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About the Authors

Alan M. Ruley

Alan Ruley is a seasoned civil trial and appellate lawyer. He represents clients in a wide variety of disputes in federal court, state court, and the North Carolina Business Court, focusing primarily on business litigation, intellectual property, insurance coverage and recovery, banking and employment.
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Andrew A. Freeman

Andrew Freeman litigates matters in all levels of trial and appellate courts, including business, employment, banking, insurance,
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