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Summit County court denies summary judgment to University of Akron; PhD students’ deceptive-trade-practices claims over School of Counseling accreditation loss to be heard by jury

AKRON, OHIO—Last Friday, Judge Susan Baker Ross issued a 15-page ruling denying the University of Akron’s motion for summary judgment in a lawsuit filed in 2018 by twelve PhD students of the University of Akron’s School of Counseling alleging violations of Ohio’s Consumer Sales Practices Act in connection with the school’s abandonment of its Marriage and Family Counseling and Therapy (“MFC/T”) program in which the plaintiffs were enrolled.

The lawsuit alleges that University officials committed various deceptive and unconscionable acts in misleading the students about the program’s loss of its unique dually accredited status that the University sold to induce them into enrolling. According to Plaintiffs, these deceptive acts were the result of a campaign by a University professor who resented the MFC/T program’s success and abused his position as a liaison with an accrediting body, CACREP, to destroy the rival program and vindicate a personal grudge he held against the professors who ran it.

After reviewing the evidence, including numerous documents and the transcripts of more than twenty depositions, Judge Baker Ross held that,

[I]t is clear that there is a genuine issue of material fact as to whether Akron U falsely represented: (1) that the subject Ph.D. program was dually accredited to prospective students applying to its program, when it was not; (2) whether CACREP terminated the accreditation or Akron U decided to voluntarily let it lapse, which affected the type and scope of efforts that the faculty and students could have engaged in in order to ensure that the Plaintiffs received what they paid for; and (3) whether anything could have been done to minimize the impact to the Plaintiffs, such as pursuing the option of grandfathering Plaintiffs into the CACREP accreditation.

Even by Defendant’s own admission, it is clear that it took almost no action to minimize the impact of its decision to let the CACREP accreditation to lapse. Defendant appears to repeatedly take a ‘well CACREP wouldn’t have let me do it anyway even if I had tried’ approach. It begins with the decision to let the CACREP accreditation lapse, after receiving an On-Site Team Report from CACREP with suggestions for program improvement. Rather than taking said suggestions and responding to CACREP, Defendants hold up these mere suggestions as proof that CACREP would have denied reaccreditation anyway and there was nothing more that could be done.

Perhaps more egregiously, Akron U did not make a special request to CACREP to grandfather in existing doctoral students based upon [Dr. Robert] Schwartz’s evaluation that ‘CACREP wouldn’t have granted it anyways.’ Schwartz’s statement was directly contradicted by Dr. Robert Urosky, the Vice President of Accreditation and Training at CACREP, who testified that CACREP has granted extensions up to one and a half years to other programs undergoing the review process and even to a program that withdrew from accreditation, and that there is no cap on the length of extension that could be granted. Several faculty member even agreed that Schwartz’s conduct throughout the process was deceptive.

A court-ordered mediation is currently scheduled for February 11, 2022, and if the case does not resolve will proceed to a jury trial on a date to be determined.

The Plaintiffs are represented by Attorney Peter Pattakos of the Pattakos Law Firm in Fairlawn, Ohio. The Defendants are represented by the Ohio Attorney General’s office. For more background on the case, Bell v. University of Akron, Summit C.P. No. CV-2018-10-4103, including a copy of the pending complaint, see here. For a copy of Plaintiffs’ brief in opposition to summary judgment, summarizing the relevant evidence, see here. And for a copy of Judge Baker Ross’s ruling denying the University’s motion, see here.