ContractsProf Blog

Editor: Jeremy Telman
Oklahoma City University
School of Law

Monday, August 13, 2012

Georgia State Court Reinstates Suit by Student Claiming Unlawful Expulsion

In Barnes v. Board of Regents, the Superior Court of Fulton County, Georgia found that Valdosta State University's student handbook serves as a binding contract that guaranteed students certain procedural rights before they could be expelled from the university and that the state had waived its sovereign immunity defenses to suit for violations of the student handbook by entering into such a contract with its students.  

Valdosta SealIn 2008, former Valdosta State University (“VSU”) student Thomas Barnes (“Barnes”) sued the Board of Regents of the University System of Georgia (the “Board”) and VSU's President, Ronald M. Zaccari (Zaccari) for breach of contract.  Barnes' complaint describes the underlying facts as follows:

Barnes was summarily expelled from VSU without notice or hearing in May 2007.  Since March 2007, Barnes had been voicing his objections (on environmental and financial grounds) to a proposed new campus parking garage.  Beginning in April 2007, Barnes and Zaccari had a series of meetings at which, according to Barnes, Zaccari castigated the student for having embarrased Zaccari.  According to the complaint, since the meetings did not deter Barnes from protesting the new parking garage, Zaccari began digging into Barnes’s academic and psychiatric records looking for grounds for expulsion. Zaccari decided to “administratively withdraw” Barnes without notice or a hearing on the ground that “Barnes presented a clear and present danger to the campus.”  

Query: is expelling a potentially dangerous student a good way of keeping your campus safe?  Wouldn't such an expulsion be more likely to unhinge a student whose mental balance was already on edge (not that there's any evidence that Barnes did in fact pose a threat)?   It's not as if college campuses are equipped with cutting-edge electronics, including those retinal scanners that Phillip K. Dick imagined in Minority Report, and could prevent any expelled student from ever returning to campus.

But we digress.

Barnes originally filed suit in federal court, and the Eleventh Circuit had ruled that the Board is immune to Barnes’s suit based on 11th Amendment sovereign immunity, although Barnes' suit agianst Zaccari was permitted to proceed.   Barnes re-filed his suit against the Board in state court, and the Fulton County Superior Court rejected the defense of sovereign immunity because, under Georgia law, such immunity is waived in actions alleging the breach of a written contract.  

[Christina Phillips & JT]

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