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University of Akron pays $550,000 settlement to PhD students to resolve deceptive-trade-practices claims

AKRON, OHIO—The University of Akron has paid a settlement of $550,000 to resolve a lawsuit filed in 2018 in the Summit County Court of Common Pleas on behalf of twelve PhD students who alleged violations of Ohio’s Consumer Sales Practices Act. The alleged violations pertained to University’s abandonment of its unique Marriage and Family Counseling and Therapy (“MFC/T”) program in its School of Counseling, in which the plaintiffs were enrolled.

The suit alleged that University officials committed various deceptive and unconscionable acts in misleading the students about the program’s loss of its unique dually accredited status, which the University had marketed to the students to induce them to enroll. According to the evidence presented by the Plaintiffs, these deceptive acts were the result of a campaign by a School of Counseling 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.

In denying the University’s motion for summary judgment, Judge Susan Baker Ross held held that Plaintiffs’ evidence presented genuine issues of material fact as to whether UA representatives had deceived the Plaintiffs in violation of the CSPA. The Court’s order stated that “it is clear that [the University] took almost no action to minimize the impact of its decision to let the CACREP accreditation to lapse,” further noting that the University’s failure to take available steps to protect the students was “egregious,” that its justifications for its actions were “directly contradicted” by CACREP officials, and that several faculty members agreed that a colleague’s “conduct throughout the process was deceptive.”

“The University’s failure to maintain this one-of-a-kind educational program, and its failure to protect the basic interests of the students who came to Akron precisely because of this program, represents an all-too-characteristic tale of the times,” said Peter Pattakos, lead attorney for the Plaintiffs. “It’s regrettable that this lawsuit ever had to be filed, but this settlement represents a substantial acknowledgement by the University of the wrong done to its students here. We’re grateful for this acknowledgement and for the professionalism of the attorneys for the University and the Ohio Attorney General’s office in working toward this resolution.”

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 for summary judgment, see here.