Law Schools

Cooley Law seeks TRO to prevent ABA from releasing accreditation findings

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WMU Cooley

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Western Michigan University Thomas M. Cooley Law School has filed a federal lawsuit (PDF) against the American Bar Association, alleging that a letter made public about the school’s accreditation compliance violates the Higher Education Act and common law due process.

Also, the law school on Nov. 14 filed a temporary restraining order motion (PDF) in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan, asking that the ABA be restrained from publishing or dispersing the letter. As of 3 p.m. CT on Thursday, the letter was posted on ABA’s Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar website.

Dated Nov. 13, the letter (PDF) details an appeal brought by Cooley and heard by the section’s council after a September 2017 accreditation committee finding that the school was not in compliance with Standard 501(b), which focuses on admissions, and Interpretation 501-1, which discusses factors to consider in admissions.

After the hearing, which took place Nov. 4, the council adopted a motion affirming the Accreditation Committee’s fact-finding and accreditation conclusions.

The council also affirmed the committee’s recommendation to defer a major change request made by Cooley until the law school could demonstrate that it is in compliance with each accreditation standard. According to the lawsuit, the request was for acquiescence to open a separate location on the main campus of Western Michigan University, in Kalamazoo, which would offer up to 60 credit hours of school’s 90-hour JD program.

Cooley’s filed complaint states that the law school in May 2016 received word that it would be subject to “interim monitoring,” to determine if it was in compliance with accreditation standards regarding financial resources, program instruction, academic support, bar passage rates, admissions and student services. The notice followed an Accreditation Committee meeting, and the law school was directed to provide information to demonstrate compliance.

In June 2016, the law school submitted to the ABA its request to open a separate location at Western Michigan University. According to the complaint, an appointed fact-finder had visited the law school and issued “a highly favorable report” that the Accreditation Committee reviewed at an April 2017 meeting.

In October 2017, the committee sent Cooley a letter stating that they concluded the law school was in compliance with Standards 202(a), 301(a), 309(b) and 501(a), but it was not in compliance with 501(b), which states that law schools should only admit candidates who appear capable of completing a legal education program and being admitted to a bar.

The committee also determined that the law school was not in compliance with Interpretation 501-1, which lists factors to consider when assessing compliance with Standard 501. That information is detailed in the Nov. 13 ABA letter to the law school that is the subject of the TRO motion.

The letter is signed by Barry Currier, the ABA’s managing director of accreditation and legal education. He wrote that the communication would be posted in accordance with the U.S.Department of Education’s regulation 34 C.F.R. § 602.26, which deals with notice of accreditation decisions.

According to the complaint, Currier informed the law school of the council’s decision on Nov. 13 and stated that the letter would be posted to the section’s website within 24 hours of notice. There were no findings that the law school is significantly out of compliance with the accreditation standards, Cooley argues, and the school alerted Currier on Nov. 13 at 6:34 p.m. ET that it would be appealing the council’s decision, which is allowed under the Rules of Procedure for Approval of Law Schools (PDF).

According to the lawsuit, the law school asked that the notice not be posted until the issue was resolved, claiming that making the communication public could harm the school. It also claims the Department of Education regulation regarding notice of accreditation decisions authorizes accreditation agencies to publish “final decisions” to take an “adverse action,” and the Nov. 13 letter was not a final notice regarding an adverse action.

“It is mid-November, the heart of the law school application period. LSAT scores were just released to the next incoming class of students and the December LSAT is less than three weeks away. The irreparable reputational harm to Cooley which would result from the ABA publishing and disseminating the Letter to the public now is immense,” the TRO motion reads.

It argues that many people will decide where to attend law school before the Feb 8, 2018, ABA deadline for the school to provide more information regarding accreditation compliance.

“Cooley risks losing scores of potential students not because of an actual final ‘adverse action’ taken by the ABA, but because of the potential for adverse action two years down the road which the ABA has given Cooley an open invitation to rectify. Put simply, publishing and disseminating the letter now creates immediate reputational harm with immediate negative consequences which cannot be undone by a later judgment in Cooley’s favor on the merits. A court cannot order law students to retroactively reconsider their decision not to attend Cooley,” the motion argues.

Neither Currier or Don LeDuc, the president and dean of Cooley, responded to ABA Journal interview requests.

Cooley’s median GPA is 2.90, and the median LSAT score is 141, according to the law school’s 509 Report (PDF) for 2016. The school had 1,209 students, according to the document. Cooley’s website lists five campus locations.

Tuition at the law school is $1,770 per credit hour for the first 30 credits, and $1,695 per credit hour for “31 and more” credits, according to its website. Out of 462 graduates in the class of 2016, 141 had full-time, long-term jobs that required bar passage, according to WMU Cooley Law’s employment summary (PDF).

Final statistics for the Michigan July 2017 bar exam have not been made public yet. For the July 2016 Michigan bar exam, WMU Cooley Law’s pass rate was 41 percent (72/175) overall, and 61 percent (52/85) for first-time test takers, according to data (PDF) released by the Michigan State Board of Law Examiners.

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