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Hope and Change, Cook County Circuit Court Edition

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Yesterday Cook County Circuit Court Judge Neil Cohen granted DePaul’s motion to dismiss a class action suit brought by several DePaul graduates, who enrolled at the law school between 2003 and 2008, incurred massive student loan debt (one now has an outstanding balance of more than $300,000), and were either unable to get any legal jobs at all, or are doing very low-paid legal work that doesn’t allow them to pay their loans in a timely manner.

The essence of Judge Cohen’s ruling can be boiled down to this:

(1) DePaul didn’t literally promise prospective students that they would get jobs as lawyers, or what those jobs would pay.

(2) The plaintiffs had no legal right to rely on DePaul’s representations regarding employment and salary prospects, because they had an obligation to independently investigate whether these representations were materially misleading.

(3) Law schools have no fiduciary obligation to prospective or current students. Deciding whether to enroll or remain enrolled in a particular law school involves an arm’s length contractual quasi-negotiation, and if prospective students don’t want to get ripped off they should do their own research regarding whether they’re being fed tarted up stats that can’t be taken at face value (see 2, supra).

The plaintiffs’ complaint puts forth the view that prospective students have, or at least had at the time the plaintiffs’ enrolled (a critical detail the court simply ignores), a reasonable expectation that law schools were the sorts of institutions that wouldn’t publish misleading employment and salary statistics:

De Paul, like other law schools, is an integral part of our legal system, and the first place in which incipient lawyers are inculcated not only with legal principles but legal ethics. As such, it is almost inconceivable that a prospective student would even contemplate that a bulwark of the legal profession would ever publish information that was false, incomplete and materially misleading. A student would expect to be able to rely on the accuracy of such information, unlike promotional material from, e.g., a department store. It would not be reasonable for a student to think there was a need to make an effort to verify such information provided. Thus, Plaintiff’s reliance on the Employment Information was reasonable.

Judge Cohen doesn’t agree:

Plaintiffs’ allege it was reasonable to rely on the employment information without making any independent investigation of their own because DePaul is a law school and prospective students should be able to rely on information provided by a law school. Plaintiffs, however, offer no authority standing for the proposition that prospective students or enrolled students may close their eyes to publicly available information on employment opportunities for lawyers and rely solely on the data provided by the educational institution in deciding to enroll at, or stay enrolled at, the institution. Nor have Plaintiffs alleged any facts, or offered any authority to support the proposition that they can reasonably assume that all the employment obtained by DePaul’s graduates was full-time and in the legal profession when no such representation was made. Common sense alone should have allowed Plaintiffs to determine that a graduate making $20,000 a year is not employed as a lawyer. [$20,000 was the lowest salary DePaul reported for one of its graduates during the years in question].

Plaintiffs have not alleged sufïìcient facts to support reasonable reliance.

Some questions I’d like to ask Judge Cohen:

(1) Do you really want to assert, in the context of granting a motion to dismiss, that law school graduates should not be able to even litigate the question of whether law schools have an obligation not to publish information, that if not independently checked for accuracy by prospective students, would be materially misleading? Because that remarkable proposition is what you’re asserting here.

(2) What “publicly available information” was available between 2003 and 2008 that would have allowed the plaintiffs to determine that DePaul’s employment statistics (which claimed “employment” rates of 95% and 98%) were materially misleading?

(3) You appear to be under the impression that it’s literally impossible for a lawyer to make as little as $20,000 in a year practicing law. In 2009, 23% of Alabama lawyers made less than $25,000.

(4) How was the wedding?

WASHINGTON–Cook County Circuit Court Judge Neil Cohen officiated at the Saturday wedding of the daughter of White House Senior Advisor Valerie Jarrett, attended by President Barack Obama, Michelle and their daughters.

In a ceremony at the home where Jarrett spent much of her youth–a block north of the Obama home on South Greenwood—Laura Jarrett married Tony Balkissoon before family and friends.

The two met while at Harvard Law School and the graduates of HLS ’10 now practice at rival Chicago law firms, Balkisson at Sidley Austin and Jarrett at Mayer Brown.

Cohen sits in the Chancery Division at the Daley Center and is the husband of Jarrett friend and confidante Susan Sher, who is the former chief of staff for the First Lady. Cohen also is close to Jarrett’s parents: her late father Dr. James Bowman, who died last year, and her mother, Dr. Barbara Bowman

Sher left the White House last year and is now the Executive Vice President for Corporate Strategy and Public Affairs at the University of Chicago Medical Center. Many of the attendees at the wedding–as does Jarrett and the Obama family–have ties to the U of C.

The wedding festivities took place in the house and in a tent in the large yard. City of Chicago records show Dr. Bowman received a permit to erect the tent for the wedding.

Among those present:

Newton and Jo Minow: Minow is a senior counsel at Sidley. When Obama was at
Harvard Law School, Minow recommended that Sidley hire him for a summer job in Chicago. Obama took the job and met his future wife, Michelle, at the firm. Minow’s daughter, Martha, is the Harvard Law School dean.

John Levi: Levi is the Sidley partner who actually hired Obama–and before him, one Michelle Robinson. Obama tapped Levi to be the Chairman of the Legal Services Corporation. Obama also appointed Martha Minow to the Legal Services board.

Martin Nesbitt: He is a close personal friend of Jarrett and the Obamas’ and lives a few blocks away. Lesser known is that he is the treasurer of the Obama for America campaign committee. His wife, Dr. Anita Blanchard is also one of Mrs. Obama’s closest friends; she delivered the Obama daughters. She is an Associate Professor of Obstetrics/Gynecology at the U of C Medical School–where Dr. James Bowman was the professor emeritus in the departments of Pathology and Medicine.

Eric and Cheryl Whitaker: The couple are close to Jarrett and the First Couple. Whitaker and Nesbitt are also frequent golfing companions of the president. On Sunday, the men were playing at the Beverly Country Club at 87th and Western. Whitaker is the Executive Vice President for Strategic Affiliations and Associate Dean for Community-Based Research at the U of C Medical Center.

Vernon and Ann Jordan: While Jordan has a high national profile – a Washington insider’s insider–the connection with Jarrett is through Ann, a cousin. Ann Dibble Jordan is a former Chicagoan with long-time connections to the University of Chicago, where she is a trustee emeritus.

John Rogers and his daughter, Victoria: Rogers, the founder of Ariel Investments, grew up with Jarrett on South Greenwood. Years later, by chance, Rogers recruited one Craig Robinson to play basketball at Princeton. Robinson is Mrs. Obama’s brother. Rogers is a major Obama fund-raiser. His former wife–Victoria’s mother–is Desiree Rogers, a former White House Social Secretary whose departure strained the relationship with Jarrett and Mrs. Obama.

Roxanne Ward: A friend who is a former executive at at Ariel.

Paula Wolff and Wayne Whalen: Wolff–who has a long civic resume–Mayor Rahm Emanuel tapped her to head the City Colleges Board in February–and Whalen–a partner at Skadden Arps–are longtime Jarrett neighbors, living on the same block on South Greenwood.

Antoinette Cook Bush: a Jarrett cousin who is a partner at Skadden.

Attorney General Eric Holder and Sharon Malone: While Holder gets most of the attention, lesser known is that his wife, an ob-gyn, is also a close friend to Jarrett and Mrs. Obama.

Allison and Susan Davis: Obama joined Davis’ law firm out of Harvard Law School. The couple live in Kenwood.

Dan and Fay Hartog Levin: Jarrett was a one-time top staffer for former Mayor Richard M. Daley. When she left City Hall, she landed at The Habitat Company, founded by Dan Levin. She became Habitat president in 2007. Obama tapped Mrs. Levin to be the U.S. Ambassador to the Netherlands, a position she resigned last year.

Meanwhile, a few miles to the north:

14. As to Plaintiff Allison Leary:
(a) Alison Leary (“Leary”) enrolled in De Paul in August 2007 and graduated with a JD degree in May 2011. She was admitted to the Illinois bar on November 4,2011.

(b) After graduation Leary was unable to find full-time employment as a lawyer. As a result, in December 2011 Leary joined Electric Cowboy, a company that runs country music themed nightclubs. She currently works as a waitress at Electric Cowboy, despite many attempts to find work as a lawyer. Leary earns exceedingly modest wages in that position. Leary’s salary is far too low to service her student loan debt.

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  • rea

    Goodness, I don’t think you can really blame the Obama Administration for a silly ruling by a state judge simply because the judge knows people in the administration, and the president attended a wedding at which the judge presided.

    • It’s a rhetorical device, relying on juxtaposition with one of the Plaintiffs, used to map an ideology in the legal profession that functions to benefit those at the top and bone everyone else.

      Paul almost invites this kind of thing; a bunch of people couldn’t tell the end of his last Salon piece was sarcastic.

      • Richard

        Its still a real cheap shot.

        • RhZ

          Na it was just a bit too lengthy is all. I got the point after 20-30 lines…

          This is a guy who doesn’t see why law schools should have any duty toward the students they market to at all. He wants to put the onus on potential law students to consult ‘publicly available information’ when making their decision.

          It is relevant that he is comfortably among the elite, while he protects other elites.

          Keep in mind this was a motion to dismiss. That means he sees no purpose in even letting the claims go forward, the factual assertions proven or not proven, and so on.

    • L2P

      I don’t think it’s a shot at Obama.

      It’s a shot at the judge for being part of the elite law school system that assumes, without taking seriously anything to the contrary, that: (1) law students succeed; (2) law students that don’t succeed fail because they deserve to fail; and (3) law schools have no obligation to do anything to make sure law students have good job prospects or even know their job prospects coming in.

      Can you imagine this ruling from a judge who graduated in the bottom half of his class from a bottom 50 law school, worked as mechanic for 5 years struggling for a first job, and then worked in document review for several years until he finally got a job at a DA’s office?

      I can’t.

      • Paul Campos

        Right.

        It’s not a point about Obama specifically; it’s a point about the mindset of our legal and political elites, which has of course been his milieu for almost all his adult life.

        • Richard

          Still a cheap shot at the judge.

          • Barry

            “Still a cheap shot at the judge.”

            Considering that he seems to believe that misleading information from a party is not a problem if there is contradictory data available somewhere, no, it’s not a cheap shot.

            Considering that he’s clueless as to what lawyers actually make in the USA today, no, it’s not a cheap shot.

            • Richard

              Disagree with the ruling (I haven’t read it yet so dont have a position) but dont impugn the judge because he knows some famous people and because he presided at a wedding where the President and some other Harvard elites attended. Or, if you think that this somehow disqualifies him from reaching a fair result on the merits of the case, make that argument rather than snidely saying you would like to ask him “how was the wedding?”.

              I generally agree with Campos about law schools and the lack of jobs but this has cheap shot written all over it.

              • RhZ

                He didn’t ‘reach a fair result on the merits of the case’ at all. He shut the case down before it could get started. That’s the problem. Motions to dismiss are common at the very beginning of the case and are a way to stop the case in its tracks, so to speak.

          • cpinva

            not hardly.

            Still a cheap shot at the judge.

            if anything, it was a rather gentle shot at an oblivious judge. i’m not a lawyer, nor do i play one on tv. further, i didn’t spend last night in a comfy, yet reasonably priced hotel room.

            i am, however, a cpa, who does fairly high-level audit work. part of that consists of using statistical sampling, which brings us back to the issue at hand: the questionable employment statistics put out by many law schools, to pimp their programs to potential students. and this judge’s shallow approach, to both the accuracy of them, and availability, to the general public, of the source data supporting them.

            if mr. campos had been cheap/harsh, he’d have simply called the judge what he is, a putz.

        • rea

          “Hope and change” is pretty Obama specific.

        • rea

          it’s a point about the mindset of our legal and political elites

          And the point is?

          Do you think there is a causal connection between knowing Valerie Jarrett, meeting the Obamas socially, and rendering a bad decision on law school representations?

          Confess, Paul–haven’t you attended weddings where a judge was present?

          • Hogan

            I think it’s more about being in a position to know Valerie Jarrett and meet the Obamas socially. (And be married to Michelle’s former chief of staff.) That’s a scarce and valuable resource.

          • cpinva

            perhaps so, but he didn’t render this opinion, judge cohen did, so your question is moot.

            Confess, Paul–haven’t you attended weddings where a judge was present?

      • Cody

        Mostly because I find it hard to imagine someone like that being appointed to judge…

  • thusbloggedanderson

    I find it hard to believe that, in any other business, I could make fraudulent representations to my customers and then beat a 12(b)(6) by shrugging, “hey, if you believed me, then the more fool you!”

    • L2P

      “Hey, this stock will be worth twice what you paid for in two years! Guaranteed!”

      “What, you believed ME? You can’t recover for that. Any reasonable person would have know better than to listen to ME.”

      • Barry

        That’s where the social connections come in – this judge’s social circle undoubtedly includes people who’ll be leaning over backwards to make sure that Wall St gets away with it.

      • CJColucci

        As I undrstand the securities laws — and I should say I haven’t practised in that area in this century — that would be a perfectly good defense.

        • thusbloggedanderson

          Well, okay, “any other business that isn’t generally understood to be legalized theft in the first place.” There. Fixed it.

    • cpinva

      actually, politicians do it all the time.

      “hey, if you believed me, then the more fool you!”

  • PSP

    Someone should bring a case in a state with a good consumer fraud statute, with triple damages, fees, and a “knowing misrepresentation” standard for intent.

    • Fallucination

      Wonder if they could just RICO the law schools. Identify a RICO enterprise between the ABA and Law Schools (maybe US News as well?), name the deans, recruiting departments, and enablers at the ABA (and US NEws?) as the individuals in the RICO scheme, argue that the statistics as fraudulent misrepresentations sent via mail and wire as a potential USC 1394 violation. RICO does treble damages and attorney’s fees. It can also be brought as a class action. Did they do this

      That’s just a quick and dirty proposal. With a little digging or involvement from parties in the know, I’m sure they could find betetr and juicier predicate acts than just the publication of the statistics.

      • Richard

        And you expect that the judiciary, consisting of ABA members and often law school professors, would allow such a suit -claiming that the ABA and numerous law schools were engaged in a criminal conspiracy – to go forward? The trend over the last fifty years has been to limit the scope of RICO (one of the least well written and worst thought out statutes ever passed).

        • cpinva

          true, it would require an angry mob of unemployed law school graduates, pitchforks, lit torches, and well-written briefs in hand, to show up on their front doorsteps.

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