If you feel you have been wronged by your university, you may want to consider filing a lawsuit. However, taking your school to court can be a complex and sometimes costly process. Ensuring that you follow the proper steps and procedures when suing your college will make it much more likely that you will receive the remedy you are seeking.
Keep in mind that you may be required to attempt to remedy any issues with your college or university through its internal dispute resolution process before you file a lawsuit. Only once internal procedures have failed to reach an adequate resolution can you then have your day in court.
Grounds for Suing Your College
Filing a lawsuit against a university is not always a straightforward process. There are overlapping federal, state, and local laws that govern university administration, and some of these regimes place legal requirements on schools.
Many universities operate like small cities that house, feed, transport, and organize students in addition to educating them. All these responsibilities can be an area where things can go wrong and provide grounds for a potential lawsuit between you and your college.
The following are a few of the possible causes of action for a lawsuit against your school.
Breach of Contract
In some circumstances, signing a Code of Conduct or another agreement as a student can create a contract between you and your school. If the university proceeds to breach this contract, you may have grounds to initiate a lawsuit.
For example, if you are involved in a disciplinary proceeding, the code of conduct may require the school to allow you to confront witnesses or offer evidence on your behalf. When a school fails to provide the contractually required due process, you can attack the school’s breach of the agreement in court.
An unfortunate number of schools and colleges are not as reputable as they claim. If you were offered assurances or promises regarding a school’s accreditation, programs, standing, or other services when enrolling, you might have been fraudulently induced to become a student. This can serve as the basis of a fraud suit.
Universities have duties of care towards their students. From failing to provide an adequately safe environment to not ensuring health codes are followed in cafeterias, a college can be responsible for a litany of possibly negligent actions.
Negligence on the part of a university can arise because of failings in their internal disciplinary proceedings. Imagine a school knows a student has committed numerous sexual and physical assaults on campus. If you are victimized by this student after the university was made aware of this pattern of behavior, you may be able to pursue a lawsuit against the school for its negligence in policing its own student body.
Title IX of the 1972 Education Amendments Act mandates every university create a process for filing and trying to resolve complaints stemming from sexual discrimination and requires that all universities take steps to prevent discrimination on the basis of sex. If you were denied an opportunity, whether academic, athletic, or social, and the school’s internal Title IX process failed you, you may have grounds for a lawsuit.
Procedure to Sue a University
The first step to take when preparing to sue a university is to gather information on your school’s internal dispute process. Search the college’s website for details on what steps you need to take, critical deadlines, possible remedies, and resources. You should also consider speaking to an attorney regarding your options at this point.
Next, preserve all evidence, documents, information, and data regarding your claim. You may also want to see if any witnesses are willing to speak about what they saw/heard/experienced.
Courts often require you to exhaust all internal dispute resolution mechanisms before launching a lawsuit. Therefore, it can be beneficial to let the internal process play out. Again, a knowledgeable education attorney can help you navigate the internal dispute procedures. Depending on your claim, you may receive an adequate remedy, such as a positive grade change or lessened disciplinary requirement.
Next, you need to determine whether you are facing a public or private institution. Because of the legal concept of “sovereign immunity,” public entities cannot be sued unless the state government allows lawsuits.
Fortunately, most states treat private colleges simply as private businesses and therefore allow them to be sued in court. However, there are some exceptions, so if you attend a public university, check with an education lawyer to determine whether your cause of action can proceed.
Taking the University to Small Claims Court
Some issues with colleges may not require a full-fledged lawsuit and all its associated costs. Often, you may have suffered little or no financial damages. For example, if a school has given you an incorrect grade, proving any actual monetary damages can be difficult.
Small claims court may be appropriate for actions with little or no financial loss, such as grade and disciplinary disputes. If the school’s internal mechanisms fail to adequately resolve your dispute, you should consider suing in small claims court.
The streamlined small claims process keeps costs and time down. Each state has a required dispute amount for all small claims proceedings, usually between $5,000 and $10,000. If your case fits the requirements, small claims court is relatively straightforward.
Steps for Suing Your University in Small Claims Court
First, you should verify your case fits your local small claims criteria.
- Send a demand letter to the designated authority at your college. Give the school a chance to offer to settle after receipt of the demand letter.
- File a small claims court complaint, ensuring to comply with all local rules and procedures.
- Serve process to your university. By following proper local service rules, you will ensure the school is aware of your lawsuit.
- Prepare for your court date.
- Attend small claims court.
Small claims court claims are typically resolved quickly. If you are well-prepared and organized, you may be able to emerge from your day in court victorious on all your demands. However, you should still consider consulting with an education attorney before going to small claims court to determine if another course of action would be more appropriate for your situation.
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