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3 Jul 2019

College Admission Scandal Sparks Civil Litigation

If you so much as walked past a television this spring, you saw something about the college admissions cheating scandal. Much of the attention focused on the celebrities embroiled in the case, particularly Full House’s Lori Loughlin and Desperate Housewives’ Felicity Huffman. Ultimately, 50 individuals were charged with a variety of crimes related to helping applicants secure admission to top universities.

Though the bulk of the media attention has focused on the criminal charges, that’s not where the trouble ends for those involved. Multi-million-dollar civil lawsuits have already been filed, as students and upset parents seek to hold schools and the indicted parties accountable.

THE SCANDAL

The scandal centers around William “Rick” Singer, who has already pled guilty to a number of charges. In exchange for hefty donations to his purported charity by the parents of college hopefuls, Singer would enhance their child’s chances at getting into a school. His tactics could involve anything from changing someone’s standardized test answers to bribing a coach to vouch for the applicant’s athletic credentials. Between 2011 and 2018, Singer took in around $25 million in his far-reaching scheme that involved Yale, Stanford, and UCLA, to name just a few of the implicated institutions.

THE CIVIL SUITS

It did not take long for civil suits over the scheme to begin. Just one day after the initial criminal charges were announced, two Stanford students filed a class action against schools involved in the scandal (one of the students has since dropped out of the suit). In the initial suit, the plaintiffs stated that Yale and USC denied them admission despite stellar standardized test scores. The heart of the claim alleged that the schools were negligent when it came to the admissions process. The suit says that the students deserved to know that their application process was corrupt. Additionally, the suit alleges that a Stanford degree has been devalued due to the school’s role in the scandal, as they claim that prospective employers may question if they truly earned admission to the school. The plaintiffs made their claim on behalf of applicants who had been rejected by eight schools between 2012 and 2018.

In another case, Jennifer Kay Toy, a parent whose son didn’t get into some of the schools involved with the scandal, filed a $500 billion (no typo) class action lawsuit against the 33 parents who were indicted, as well as coaches and Mark Riddell, who took exams for students. In this suit, Toy alleges that the actions of the parents, coaches, and Riddell prevented her son from having the opportunity to gain admission.

“I’m now outraged and hurt because I feel that my son, my only child, was denied access to a college not because he failed to work and study hard enough but because wealthy individuals felt that it was ok to lie, cheat, steal and bribe their children’s way into a good college,” wrote Toy in the lawsuit, which alleges that more than one million people were ultimately affected. These aren’t the only civil cases tied to the scandal. Eight students and parents filed a lawsuit against the University of San Diego, another school involved, alleging that the admissions process was not fair. In the suit, the parties are seeking that application fees are returned to those who were rejected.

In another suit, the son of one of the indicted parents sued Georgetown to prevent the school from possibly removing him. On top of this, there’s speculation that Loughlin and her husband, fashion designer Mossimo Giannulli—who was also indicted—may soon be involved in a civil suit against USC. That’s the claim that prosecutors have made anyway, in attempting to disqualify from Loughln’s criminal case, a lawyer whose firm represents USC in another matter.

While some of the monetary demands in these suits feel like a reach, the potential impact of the litigation is significant. In addition to any liability that could be imposed, schools must be concerned with the serious reputational damage that could accompany extended civil litigation on a subject that has proven irresistible to the press. Parents and other individuals, for their part, may be forced to pay for their wrongful actions. And though it remains to be seen if these lawsuits will prove successful, it is clear that there’s more for the indicted parties to be concerned about than just criminal penalties.