Former Massachusetts Law Students Sues School For $100,000 Over Low Grade In Contracts

devlin_pageMassLawLogoMartin Odemena, a former law student at the Massachusetts School of Law, has taken the school to court over a D that he received in contracts. Odemena maintains that Professor Joseph Devlin clearly stated in his syllabus that a quiz would not count toward the final grade and then counted the score. It is an ironic position for Devlin (left) who specializes in drafting contracts. The result was that Odemena was suspended for academic performance and was unable to transfer to another school. He is suing for more than $100,000. The case is Odemena v. Devlin et al.

The lawsuit has been brought under the state consumer protection law, but faces a huge challenge. Such issues are generally left to the discretion of schools and particularly the professor. Moreover, law professor Peter Malaguti who acts as the school’s general counsel, investigated and found that Devlin told students during the first class that the quizzes would count for the grade. This statement was found in the notes of another student. Thus it is a conflict between the written description and a later oral amendment made in class.

A motion to dismiss seems likely and it would be quite an achievement if Odemena even made it to discovery in such a case.

Source: ABA Journal

53 thoughts on “Former Massachusetts Law Students Sues School For $100,000 Over Low Grade In Contracts”

  1. Jay:

    “The professor performed his end — he taught the course.”

    *******************

    Kind of begs the question wouldn’t you say? Seems the issue is did he teach the grading policy?

  2. I agree. A backdrop of law books belongs to another time. Too British. But an iPad? That’s like putting on a pair of engineer boots to run a marathon. Or tight underwear. Or joining a pilgrimage to Mecca. In 10 years, when Apple will have already become history, books will still be around. You’d be more enduring in front of empowering imagery of the Internet, instead.

  3. Here’s the complaint: https://ecf.mad.uscourts.gov/doc1/09516220741
    Looks like he missed the course in drafting, too. It is a complaint for declaratory relief, but he is seeking monetary damages (including treble, per G.L. c. 93A).
    Of note–he didn’t miss just one quiz, but rather several. In addition, this isn’t really a contract case. The Plaintiff likely signed up and paid the tuition without reviewing the syllabus. The professor performed his end–he taught the course. The issue of grading really falls into the implementation of the contract, the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing. And, it can implicate 93A.

    I’m curious as to how a “suspension” meant he couldn’t graduate. At worst, he should have had to retake Contracts. He’s going to have a very hard time proving damages, should he be permitted to amend.

  4. You have to be very careful how you write the syllabus for your classes. Anyone who has taught college has had at least one of them come back to bite them. I think the student is right to sue.

  5. randyjet:

    You need to sit for one of those exams before tutting about how easy they are. Yale or Harvard have nothing to do with it. Some law schools screen at the outset and others screen during classes. Harvard and Yale screen early and its rare to get less than a B- once you’re in though its possible. Other less prestigious (not less effective) schools are tough graders.

  6. Bill H:

    Ya think? What if he thought it was optional as the syllabus stated? Would you pull the all-nighter with four other subjects to attend to?

  7. It seems to me the student could have solved his problem by simply passing the quiz. Then whether or not it was included in the final grade would be irrelevant. What is the problem with simnply doing the assigned work?

  8. mespo727272

    Dredd:

    “A tad litigious”

    ****************

    I don’t know about that, Dredd. Suspended and unable to transfer based — he says — on the contract grade? Sound pretty serious to me.
    ===========================
    JT indicated: “The lawsuit has been brought under the state consumer protection law, but faces a huge challenge. Such issues are generally left to the discretion of schools and particularly the professor. Moreover, law professor Peter Malaguti who acts as the school’s general counsel, investigated and found that Devlin told students during the first class that the quizzes would count for the grade. This statement was found in the notes of another student. Thus it is a conflict between the written description and a later oral amendment made in class.

    A motion to dismiss seems likely and it would be quite an achievement if Odemena even made it to discovery in such a case.”

    Another professor is closer to your take on it:

    In constructing course syllabi that are legally sound, you are basically focusing on avoiding educational malpractice. Just as a background, “Educational Malpractice” is a claim generally based on contract law and is a claim which is generally unsuccessful for the student/plaintiff. The claim arises from the duty assumed by a professional not to harm the individuals relying on the professional’s expertise. You, as a professor are required to exercise that degree of skill and knowledge usually had by members of your profession.

    Although a syllabus is not considered to be a legal document, it is a good safe practice in this litigious society, for you as a professor to treat it as one.

    Although courts often sympathize with students who claim that they have not learned, or that their professors were negligent in teaching or supervising them, traditionally courts have been very reluctant to create a cause of action for educational malpractice citing reasons such as the following:

    *There is no satisfactory standard of care by which to measure an educator’s conduct.

    *Permitting such claims would flood the courts with litigation and would thus place a substantial burden on educational institutions.

    *The courts are not equipped to oversee the day-to-day operation of educational institutions.

    But in constructing syllabi that are legally sound, and in turn avoiding educational malpractice, it is first and foremost important for you to comply with the contractual documents of the institution, such as the Faculty Handbook and the student catalog. Courts view these as legal contractual documents. Make sure that the description of the course in your syllabus is consistent with the description of the course in the student catalog.

    In constructing course syllabi that are legally sound, you must follow and comply with Section 8.5 (Course Outlines/Syllabi) of the Faculty Handbook. Remember, the Faculty Handbook is viewed as a legal document by the courts. Under Section 8.5, you are required to prepare a course outline/syllabus for each course taught. Copies must be distributed to each student on the first day of class.

    The course outline shall:

    *State succinctly the objectives of the course.
    *List the required textbook(s).
    *List dates major projects are to be submitted.
    *List dates for tests and examinations.
    *Summarize the major topics to be covered.
    *Enumerate the expectations of students, including attendance, make-up and honor code policies.
    *State the criteria for grading students’ performance.

    All of the above criteria are extremely important in making your syllabus legally sound.

    (Center For Teaching Excellence). I think it will depend on the pleadings at a motion to dismiss stage.

    Like you said, there are a lot of issues.

  9. One has to wonder at how this guy could get such a low grade at this school since it is not exactly Harvard or Yale Law. It is good that hopefully he will not make it into the ranks of that profession.

  10. Interesting. Usually the syllabus contains language that states that it is a guide and at may be changed at the discretion of the professor. In the interest of fair play, making the oral announcement in class would be technically enough, but with the tech “blackboard” type interactions courses use to manage materials and communication, it would behoove any Prof, but especially a contract specialist, to have made a brief email/communication board post after the class, stating the change. I question what status this student was in that one quiz grade could change the entire course grade.

  11. mespo, When you ask a question about why attorneys are so slow to adapt, I consider it rhetorical.

  12. Perhaps the student is attempting to prove his knowledge of contract law, learned in the class, and hoping for a grade adjustment accordingly.

  13. As an aside, why do lawyers like standing in front of walls of books. We rarely use them anymore and if you think it makes you look studious, think again. Most would say it makes you look old fashioned. Give me an Ipad any day. Hey maybe I’ll stand in front of an Apple product wall!

  14. Dredd:

    “A tad litigious”

    ****************

    I don’t know about that, Dredd. Suspended and unable to transfer based — he says — on the contract grade? Sound pretty serious to me.

  15. Not sure where this case is going but it doesn’t seem sporting to write one thing and state another –especially for a contracts professor. My own told me that “every word” is a potential lawsuit so be careful.

    Parole evidence anyone? Was it really a “later” oral amendment given it was allegedly told on the first day of class? What if he said it as the syllabus was being passed out? When was the syllabus published to students? Is the syllabus even a contract? What if our struggling student was out that day when the alleged amendment was offered? Are construction of documents resolved against the author of the document? Can a unilateral oral statement not agreed upon by the parties serve as the basis for a different agreement when contrary terms are written in the agreement?

    I see lots of fun issues.

  16. Law profs across the US are currently reviewing their syllabuses, dotting I’s and crossing T’s.

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