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. This is not difficult, even for contract purists. Written contracts may be orally amended. There is evidence that other students heard the oral amendment and made notes on it. Apparently this gentleman wasn’t paying attention. If he can get past a motion to dismiss, he should lose on the affirmative defense of failure of performance.

  2. Well said John.

    As remarked above – [ambiguity] is subjective;
    and (me thinks) the Teacher is being a bit abusive

    with the numeration/consideration that pays his monthly.

  3. Anecdotal memories are entirely irrelevant.

    The law, rules, tradition and custom are relevant.

    Words mean things. The Professor dictated the rule. The student read the Professor’s dictation.

    The Professor presumes that a subsequent oral amendment was heard and not obstructed. Prove it.

    That the student devises a strategy for obtaining a particular course grade is irrelevant.

    The student provided consideration which the institution benefited from.
    Damages were incurred through the loss of tuition.

  4. I frankly don’t ever remember seeing a syllabus for any class. Of course, I started law school in 1969, when we were still reading stone tablets. But in my experience, law school is less a test of brilliance than it is of endurance.

    In my view, Mr. Odemena’s claims are predicated on an unsympathetic foundation, the notion that a student should not be held responsible for all of his work product. Contracts is part of the core law school curriculum. If Mr. Odemena attended all of his classes and read all of the assigned materials, he should have passed all of the quizzes. Others in his class obviously did. This case should not survive a motion to dismiss.

  5. mespo727272: “I think it’s a question of reliance. If the student relied in good faith on the prescriptions of the syllabus,it might be enforceable as a quasi-contract assuming the professor got some legal benefit from that reliance and the kids action in taking the class.”

    What difference to reliance if the student had no choice? At my law school, Contracts is one of the ABA required classes on a set schedule in 1L year. Those classes were assigned to us, and as far as I knew, there wasn’t a choice to take another Contracts class, unlike the later electives.

    1. By the time I was teaching in the mid 80s, the syllabus was considered a contract between, the teacher and the student, hence the formal layout and requirement for syllabus for each class. The syllabus must include how you are going to get graded and that is what this student seems to have relied on. You cannot change that.

  6. Jane L (@SunnyJL52)
    “…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.”

    Paul C. Schulte
    “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.”

    Hear, hear! The syllabus was published. The amendment should have been.

    “Just the facts, ma’am,” not the extraneous and superfluous.

    The burden should be on Massachusetts School of Law to prove that Martin Odemena heard the oral amendment and that he was not obstructed from hearing it.

    The Professor has an obligation and as does the student.

    Words mean things.

    The syllabus is published as:

    “your key to success. Use the syllabus as a time management tool and put every important date in your planner right away.”

    P.S. Didn’t John and Ted Kennedy and George Bush attend Harvard?

  7. Jay Wolman:

    I think it’s a question of reliance. If the student relied in good faith on the prescriptions of the syllabus,it might be enforceable as a quasi-contract assuming the professor got some legal benefit from that reliance and the kids action in taking the class. Not sure what that would be but I suppose it’s possible that law professors are evaluated on how many students take their classes and if “quizzes optional” packs ’em in maybe that’s enough. If the student was given notice of change then he might be out-of-luck assuming he had time to respond by dropping the class or taking the class with another professor.

    Also the syllabus might to likened to an employee manual ( a topic you know something about) and made part of the contract governing the relationship by operation of law. Not sure it’s akin to a product manual.

    Regardless, an Interesting little topic. Where’s JT when you need him? he knows all about this stuff.

    1. mespo – colleges and universities require them and most of the high schools I worked at required a course syllabus and dictated the content requirements. I know that when I was the Instructional Specialist for my last school, I set up the syllabus guidelines and then made sure they complied with state standards.

  8. Prof Devlin was pretty lazy to not amend and reprint his syllabus before class, unless Mass Law has an unusually tight print budget.

    Did he have a class website where he recorded syllabus amendments as the authoritative version of the syllabus? (My profs who changed their syllabi did this as SOP.)

    I always thought of a syllabus as like an adhesion contract.

  9. Lawyers should stand in front of a computer screen open to LexisNexis or WestLaw, recognizable but just blurred enough to avoid copyright infringement.

  10. @Esposito It only begs the question if you assume the syllabus (which set forth the initial grading policy) constitutes some part of the contract. A syllabus is more akin to an owners’ manual, describing the product, than the actual offer/acceptance terms. Recall that contracts is typically a mandatory course anyhow, so if anything, the school’s curriculum would be more in the nature of a contract forming document than a syllabus.
    In fact, I’d liken it even more to an owners’ manual than contract as follows: you buy your child a toy that says on the box “Batteries not included”. You take it home, open it, and read the manual that says “3 AAA batteries needed”. You run out to the store and buy the batteries. Then you open the compartment and see that it only fits a 9v battery. So now you are out the cost of the AAA batteries. No breach of contract, but can be negligent misrepresentation, bad faith and unfair trade practice.

    1. Jay – I was told, when I was teaching college, that the syllabus was a contract between the student and the instructor. Hence, my eventually putting in an escape clause to CYA in the event of emergencies. However, my grading policy was always point based and I never gave a test or quiz that did not count. Never saw the sense in it.

  11. “The Cigarette Rule” is the general core of Little FTC cases like this one:

    (1) whether the practice, without necessarily having been previously considered unlawful, offends
    public policy as it has been established by statutes, the common law, or otherwise-whether, in other words, it is within at least the penumbra of some common-law, statutory, or other established
    concept of unfairness; (2) whether it is immoral, unethical, oppressive or unscrupulous; (3) whether it causes substantial injury to consumers (or competitors or other businessmen).

    (Wiggin). Does that give him a chance?

  12. I went through Harry Blackmun’s papers at the LOC. Fascinating.
    He got a ‘D” in trusts and estates at Harvard LS but that was the department that he was later assigned to when he joined Dorsey and Whitney in Minneapolis in 1934, and where he remained until he became the Mayo Clinic’s first in house counsel. His young colleagues used to razz him about holding hands by the elevator with ancient female clients.

    1. oldfox – Blackmun clearly knew how to keep some clients happy. He was probably billing for the time anyway. 😉

  13. The plaintiff in the case filed pro se … is representing himself.

    He only cites Mass. General Laws Chap. 93A (MA consumer protection act) as the base of his Declaratory Judgment suit.

    That state statute says that federal law concerning federal consumer protection law is persuasive on state courts:

    Section 2. (a) Unfair methods of competition and unfair or deceptive acts or practices in the conduct of any trade or commerce are hereby declared unlawful.

    (b) It is the intent of the legislature that in construing paragraph (a) of this section in actions brought under sections four, nine and eleven, the courts will be guided by the interpretations given by the Federal Trade Commission and the Federal Courts to section 5(a)(1) of the Federal Trade Commission Act (15 U.S.C. 45(a)(1)), as from time to time amended.

    (c) The attorney general may make rules and regulations interpreting the provisions of subsection 2(a) of this chapter. Such rules and regulations shall not be inconsistent with the rules, regulations and decisions of the Federal Trade Commission and the Federal Courts interpreting the provisions of 15 U.S.C. 45(a)(1) (The Federal Trade Commission Act), as from time to time amended.” (Chap 93A). Anyone know any federal cases on point?

  14. I have to agree with Mespo that no matter which law school you are attending, the exams and work is difficult. I wonder if the Dean checked the notes of all the students in the class to see if an oral comment was given about quizzes? Or 20% or 51%?

  15. What the H-ll is the “Massachusetts School of Law”? Is that a law school w/UMass, or some clown school? If the latter, a lawsuit shutting the school would be in the public interest.

    1. mespo – as a former college teacher (adjunct) I was held to my syllabus, which I had to turn into the department at the beginning of the term. I spent the first day of class going over the syllabus and answering any questions. Although, I did learn over time to put into the syllabus a clause the was a get out of jail free card. Still, that would not have happened in this case. My grading system was always on points and all points counted.

Comments are closed.