Metropolitan News-Enterprise


Wednesday, July 20, 2005


Page 1


Court of Appeal Panel Rejects Claims Against UWLA By Law Student Who Flunked Out of School


By a MetNews Staff Writer


An action by a former student at University of West Los Angeles School of Law, who claimed that the school caused her emotional distress and violated her rights by failing to accommodate her psychological disability, has been rejected by this district’s Court of Appeal.

Div. Seven, in an unpublished opinion Monday by Justice Earl Johnson Jr., said Joan Marie Howell—who represented herself in the trial and appellate courts—failed to show that the school violated the law when it terminated her student status for failing to meet required grade levels.

 Howell enrolled at UWLA for the Fall 1999 semester and had academic problems from the beginning. She received a low score on a diagnostic exam given during the first semester and was required to enroll in an academic intervention program, which school records show she rarely intended.

At the end of the first semester, she was notified she had flunked out after receiving a C, two grades of C-, and a D+ in her four classes, for a cumulative grade point average of 1.68.  The action was taken under a school policy that requires that a first semester student have a GPA of at least 1.85 in order to continue at the school.

Howell petitioned for a waiver, asking that she be allowed to repeat two of the courses, take a reduced academic load in the second semester, and be given special accommodations under the Americans With Disabilities Act. She explained that she now realized it had been “a mistake” not to notify the school when she enrolled that she had a “mental and physical break down” sometime prior to applying to the school.

She explained during the semester, she had suffered an abscessed tooth, which she believed to be a result of stress, followed by a “toxic reaction” to medication. The reaction caused her to discontinue the medication, she explained, as a result of which she “often found it hard to focus” on her studies “and should have requested an incomplete.”

The school denied her petition, and she sued in January 2003, pleading claims for negligent and intentional infliction of emotional distress, misrepresentation, and breach of contract. Among the damages she suffered, she alleged, was the loss of state vocational rehabilitation funds that were helping finance her education.

Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Gerald Rosenberg granted the school’s motion for summary judgment. He ruled that the school did not breach any contract with Howell by terminating her enrollment in accordance with established policy,  that there was no breach of duty or outrageous conduct that would support an emotional distress claim, and that Howell’s request for disability accommodation was untimely.

Johnson, writing for the Court of Appeal, said the trial judge was correct.

It was unclear from Howell’s filings, the justice explained, what contract she was referring to in her complaint. But Howell’s own papers, Johnson noted, acknowledged receipt of a student handbook in November 1999 that stated the requirement of a 1.85 GPA.

Pointing out that this was prior to the date that Howell allegedly suffered the abscessed tooth, the justice reasoned:

“Being apprised of the new dismissal policy — if it in fact was new — Howell had an opportunity to request an incomplete in her classes or some other type of accommodation.  Howell made no such request.  Instead, she took her exams.”

Johnson cited the deferential review that California courts traditionally give to universities with respect to enforcement of their academic policies, so long as the school acts consistently and in good faith.

The jurist wrote:

“UWLA dismissed Howell because she failed to achieve the minimum required GPA at the end of her first semester of law school — a policy stated in the student information handbook Howell received.  The dismissal was based solely on Howell’s academic performance.  There is no evidence in the record of bad faith or ill will.  UWLA’s decision to dismiss Howell was not arbitrary and capricious.  At her deposition, Howell admitted more than 12 of her fellow first-year students were dismissed for the same reason.  Associate Dean Cervi confirmed the number of students similarly dismissed was 14.  UWLA had the right to change its academic policies at any time.  There is no evidence in the record indicating UWLA instituted this particular policy specifically so it could dismiss Howell and Howell alone.”

The school was represented on appeal by Peter L. Garchie and George Soares of Lewis Brisbois Bisgaard & Smith.


Copyright 2005, Metropolitan News Company