Sue When Choices Don't Work Out

By Phillip Addis  

As I was considering various topics for this issue, I happened to overhear a group of people discussing a potential lawsuit. I will characterize my ongoing interest in their conversation as research as opposed to eavesdropping. 

The plaintiff in this case is an individual who was considering her prospects for employment given her pending graduation in the spring. Her degree will be in a field that does not have a large employment base and is truly specialized. 

She was very concerned about the amount of her student loan debt and other expenses. On the other hand, she was very pleased her student loan would be arriving soon because she could then afford the payments on her new car. 

From the conversation, she had spent the summer investigating employment options and discovered there were very few jobs in her field. She had also discovered most jobs in her field were limited to certain parts of the country. Lastly, she needed to make between $40,000 and $50,000 per year to support her lifestyle, and the starting salary was below that number. 

Her realization of the facts was then quickly followed by anger. She was angry at assorted individuals and institutions for not advising her that this wasn’t the most lucrative area of study. In addition, she felt her chosen field of study was horribly underpaid and that there should be more opportunities.

After listening to this conversation, I considered whether there was an actual lawsuit. 

Everyone is familiar with the lawsuit against Trump University and other for-profit private colleges. Some of these lawsuits have resulted in colleges closing doors and, in the most notable case of Trump University, a $25 million settlement. 

There are two legal theories that support these lawsuits. 

The first claim is breach of contract: Did the colleges deliver on their promises to provide proper training using current information? Did the degree meet the requirements for accreditation or licensing? The second claim is a relatively recent cause of action called educational malpractice: Did the colleges commit fraud in recruiting students, lie about the job prospects after graduation, or negligently use unskilled instructors?  

Let’s look first at the Trump University matter. 

Trump University was not a college or university in any sense of the word. This was a real estate investment seminar. All the materials contained disclosures that attending the seminar was not a guarantee of success nor would it turn you into Donald Trump. There were no student loans involved or any claim that you were obtaining a college degree. 

My personal opinion is that this case was no different from any of the other dozens of seminars offered across the country in book, audio and personal presentation format. If there had not been a presidential inauguration pending, I doubt the lawsuit would have been settled. I am also uncertain if the case would have been successful. 

The courts have not extended the idea of educational malpractice to traditional not-for-profit colleges. Although colleges and universities tout their training, knowledgeable faculty and ongoing placement of their alumni, the argument is that no true promises are being made. Throughout either the written materials or electronic information, there are numerous disclaimers that no field of study guarantees you a job. The arguments also have discussed that there is no reason for them to mislead prospective students since traditional colleges are not profit-driven. 

Back to the plaintiff in this matter. Unfortunately, there is no lawsuit because your chosen major does not guarantee you a job or lifestyle. Individual choices have consequences and there is no lawsuit if the choices we make in life do not work out.

Phil Addis earned his undergraduate degree in political science. If he had decided not to go to law school, the next best use for his degree would have been to teach seminars about what not to major in at college. 

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