Post-Katrina, No Such Thing as a Free Semester?
Brian Branch, then a third-year law student at Loyola University New Orleans, was one among thousands of students displaced by Hurricane Katrina. He enrolled free of charge that fall of 2005 at Southern Methodist University through a program that enabled Loyola and Tulane University students to attend other law schools tuition-free, provided they paid their home institutions’ tuition and fees.
Upon returning to Loyola that spring, Branch -- then under the pseudonym of “Jody Roe” -- filed a class action against Loyola, on behalf of all its students, seeking tuition refunds for the fall. “To me, it doesn’t seem like someone should be able to benefit from the generosity of another person,” Branch said Wednesday. He passed the Louisiana bar in summer 2006 after graduating from Loyola on time. “SMU, they’re opening their doors to people and being generous and not charging them tuition and then Loyola’s going to benefit from it.”
A U.S. district court judge in eastern Louisiana disagreed, striking down Branch’s claims of breach of contract and unjust enrichment on the part of Loyola in dismissing the suit last week. The case isn’t entirely over: A class certification hearing scheduled for this morning could potentially breathe new life into a separate but similar lawsuit if Branch’s lawyers establish that he represents a group of people with similar claims.
But Richard Bell, director of risk management at Loyola, expressed optimism Wednesday. “We’re happy with the order from the court and hope to see the university prevail through tomorrow’s hearing," he said. "As far as we’re concerned, the case has absolutely no merit."
“It’s embarrassing for this former student who now is a lawyer, because the court pretty rightly and fairly aggressively points out the ridiculousness of his argument,” said Paul L. Caron, a professor and associate dean of faculty at the University of Cincinnati College of Law. Caron wrote about the case and linked to the judge's ruling on TaxProf Blog Wednesday. “The court’s language here is pretty harsh, so I think if [other New Orleans colleges] had any nervousness before the opinion came out, the opinion is as much of a slam dunk as it could be.”
According to the court order awarding Loyola’s motion for summary judgment and dismissing the suit, Branch signed an SMU document “that specifically acknowledged his understanding that he was required to have paid tuition and fees to his home law school in order to enroll as a ‘Special Emergency Visitor.’ ” The court first dispenses with Branch's breach of contract allegation, pointing out that, upon applying to Loyola's law school, Branch certified that he would abide by its regulations -- which include provisions pertaining to visiting student status at other institutions. “It was because of the special policy adopted by Loyola that plaintiff was able to attend classes at SMU, receive those credits towards his Loyola degree, and graduate without any delay,” the court finds. "Plaintiff has pointed to no provision of the student bulletin or Handbook that would entitle him to a free semester of law school."
Furthermore, the court disputes Branch’s claim that Loyola was unjustly enriched by retaining his tuition dollars -- in fact turning the allegation on its head to argue that if the court were to find in Branch’s favor, it would unjustly enrich him, as Cincinnati’s Caron points out.
“He got a free semester at SMU because he paid Loyola; he’s arguing now that he shouldn’t have to pay Loyola,” Caron said. (The court notes that SMU tuition would have been higher than Loyola's. It is worth noting, though, that wasn't true for all other displaced students, some of whom went from private to public colleges, for instance.)
“He’s trying to get a free semester of law school out of this," said Caron.
In an interview Wednesday, Branch, now an associate at Edward J. Womac, Jr. & Associates in New Orleans, said he should get a free semester given the circumstances. Then a civil law student, Branch said he could enroll only in common law courses while at SMU. “Other than allowing me to graduate on time because [Loyola] accepted the 13 credit hours I took there, it did me no good,” he said. “I'd paid for a Loyola education, not a SMU education. I paid for Loyola’s teachers, their network, and I got SMU, their institution, their network.”
“When people were evacuated because of Hurricane Katrina and they went to Texas or Atlanta or wherever they were going, a lot of people got free housing. Do you think it would be right for a landlord to say, ‘Hey where did you stay?’ ” Branch said in comparing his experience with Loyola to a landlord saying, “ ‘OK, since you got free housing you can pay the rent for five months even though your apartment was flooded. Because someone gave you something for free, we’re going to charge you.’ ”
Loyola officials declined to comment in detail on the lawsuit given this morning’s scheduled class certification hearing. But Susan L. Krinsky, an associate dean and lecturer at Tulane Law School, said she had difficulty understanding Branch’s argument.
“All of the law schools that invited our students and Loyola’s students did so where this was the deal. Nobody wanted Loyola and Tulane to be more devastated than they were already going to be and in an act of extraordinary generosity across the country, law schools volunteered to do this and the deal was that the student would be getting credit from the home law school, would pay the home law school and these other law schools would not charge them. I find it difficult to believe that anyone believes that they should just be able to go for free.”
“I don’t think that in the end either of these schools benefited," Krinsky said. "Believe me, we would all have preferred to have just had a regular old fall semester than suffer the hundreds of millions of dollars of damage that we suffered. Loyola didn’t end up ahead and nor did Tulane.”