Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Court Upholds St. John's Law School Recission Of Admission; Student Was There For Three Semesters

The New York Appellate Division for the Second Judicial Department has affirmed a decision of St. John's University Law School to rescind the admission of a student who matriculated and was enrolled there for three semesters.

The facts:

The petitioner applied for admission to St. John's University School of Law (hereinafter the law school) in November 2005. In response to a question regarding whether he had ever been charged with, pleaded guilty to, or been found guilty of, a crime, he explained that he had been arrested in New Jersey in July 1999 "by the police shortly after a drug deal," and ultimately accepted a plea bargain pursuant to which he was convicted of possession of a controlled dangerous substance in the third degree, in violation of NJ Stat Ann § 2C:35-10(a)(1). The petitioner certified on his application that his answers were complete and accurate, and that he understood that his failure to provide truthful answers could result in the denial of admission, dismissal as a student, or rescission of an awarded degree. At the time his application for admission was submitted, the petitioner was unaware that his petition in New Jersey to have his record expunged had been granted.

When the petitioner endeavored to obtain an advance ruling on his eligibility for and the likelihood of his admission to the New York State bar in light of his conviction, the law school first learned of the original charges that had been asserted against the petitioner, including, inter alia, charges for distribution of LSD in the second degree, possession of LSD with the intent to distribute in the second degree, possession of Ecstasy in the third degree, and possession of Ecstasy with the intent to distribute. The law school then advised the petitioner that he must amend his application for admission and include a full accounting of what transpired with respect to his arrest in July 1999 and an explanation with respect to his failure to initially disclose this information. Although the petitioner advised the law school that the statement in his application concerning his criminal record was not factually incorrect and did not need to be amended, he nonetheless supplemented his application and made available all details and documents surrounding his expunged record. In his supplement, the petitioner acknowledged that he had been arrested for distribution and had knowingly distributed illegal substances, and freely admitted his guilt of that crime, although he maintained that he did not engage in distribution of illegal substances on a regular basis. Following the receipt of the petitioner's supplement, the law school ultimately rescinded the petitioner's admission and, in effect, denied the petitioner's application for admission nunc pro tunc. The law school noted that the petitioner's original application contained material omissions and misrepresentations involving the actual criminal charges that had been brought against him and that his supplemental correspondence acknowledged that he had been charged with and was guilty of distribution of LSD and Ecstasy.

The court's majority held that

The law school's determination was made on the grounds of the petitioner's misrepresentations and omissions on his application regarding the extent of his prior criminal background, and was based upon the exercise of discretion after a full review. Despite the petitioner's subsequent disclosure, under the circumstances presented here, and in light of the true nature of the petitioner's prior criminal activity, the law school's determination to rescind his acceptance was not arbitrary and capricious, and does not warrant judicial intervention...

Since the petitioner disclosed, subsequent to his admission, that he was originally charged with and was guilty of distributing, and possessing with intent to distribute, a controlled dangerous substance, we do not consider the penalty imposed to be "so disproportionate to the offense . . . as to be shocking to one's sense of fairness" (citation omitted)

There is a dissent from Justice Robert Miller

St. John's University School of Law (hereinafter St. John's Law School) is a preeminent law school that is a part of a private Catholic Vincentian University. Over the years, St. John's Law School has produced a distinguished group of lawyers and jurists, and has played a key role in the New York City legal community. However, its determination in this case to retroactively deny an admitted student's application for admission after he had successfully completed more than 1½ years of course work, without following the grievance process established in its student handbook, was arbitrary and capricious and in violation of lawful procedure. Accordingly, I must respectfully dissent...

The record...reflects that students sought to amend their applications almost as a matter of course in connection with their professional responsibility classes. Moreover, the decision to permit students to amend or supplement their applications involved consideration of submissions and explanations set forth by the students while they were students. The decision of St. John's Law School to incorporate this procedure into the curriculum and to consider conduct undertaken after the students had been admitted, makes this case distinguishable from the situation in Matter of Mitchell v New York Med. Coll. (208 AD2d at 930), and renders the provisions of the student handbook applicable to any punishment imposed for a student's failure to adequately request leave to amend their applications pursuant to the de facto procedure established by St. John's Law School (compare id. at 930). Accordingly, Powers was entitled to the benefit of a hearing and the other procedural safeguards afforded to the students of St. John's Law School. Since Powers was not afforded these procedural protections, the determination to rescind his admission must be annulled for this reason, in addition to the reasons previously delineated...

The revelation that every week, three to five students successfully seek permission to amend or supplement their applications for admission so as to disclose, among other things, criminal convictions, further indicates arbitrariness in the determination of St. John's Law School. While St. John's Law School routinely permitted other students to remedy deficiencies in their initial application through amendments or supplements, and actually invited Powers to submit additional materials, St. John's Law School effectively ignored the supplemental materials that Powers provided and stated that its determination to rescind Powers's admission was based on his failure to provide truthful answers in his application. To the extent that St. John's Law School effectively ignored the supplemental information that Powers provided and punished him based on the finding that he did not fully and truthfully provide the requested disclosure, its determination was arbitrary and capricious since it routinely permitted other students to remedy deficiencies in their initial application through amendments or supplements and gave no explanation for its disparate treatment of Powers...

Here, St. John's Law School violated its own procedures and did not deal fairly with Powers when, in rescinding his admission and retroactively voiding three semesters of course work, it imposed a sanction far beyond those set forth in the application or the student handbook. Although Powers's omission may have warranted a punishment, the determination to impose the penalty here was arbitrary and capricious and in violation of lawful procedure. Accordingly, Powers's petition to review the determination of St. John's Law School, dated September 10, 2010, which rescinded his admission to St. John's Law School, should have been granted, and the determination should have been annulled.

The dissenting justice was a classmate of mine at Georgetown Law.

Legal Ethics Forum had this earlier post. The Chronicle of Higher Education also had reported on the litigation. (Mike Frisch)

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