Megan Butler / January 6, 2023
Twice a federal judge has ruled against a doctoral candidate suing the school, and twice the federal appeals court has demanded another round of proceedings.
ATLANTA (CN) — An Arizona-based, for-profit Christian university must face claims that it breached contractual obligations by failing to provide a doctoral student with the necessary requirements to complete his degree program.
Donrich Young, who enrolled in a Grand Canyon University online doctoral program in 2015, claimed the necessary guidance and resources were not made available to allow him to complete his degree within the minimum 60 credit-hour format represented in the college’s advertising.
In 2019, Young sued the university on claims of breach of contract, intentional misrepresentation, unjust enrichment and violations of the Arizona Consumer Fraud Act.
He claimed he did not receive the faculty support promised by Grand Canyon to complete his required dissertation, which forced him to take and pay for additional courses. Six other students originally joined in the lawsuit, but a federal judge quickly dismissed them on the basis that it lacked jurisdiction over their claims.
U.S. District Judge Timothy C. Batten, appointed by George W. Bush, sided with Grand Canyon University and dismissed all of Young’s claims in 2021.
The 11th Circuit reversed in part on Friday, two years after it overturned an earlier Batten ruling that would have sent the case to arbitration.
In the latest ruling, a three-judge panel says Young sufficiently showed a contractual relationship existed between himself and the university, and that it breached its promise of providing the necessary faculty support for his dissertation as stated in its academic handbook and course catalog.
The documents describe the doctoral degree program as being “interactive” and requiring students to work directly with their dissertation chair and committee members for continuous feedback along with five mandatory peer review cycles.
Young also sufficiently showed that the university had breached the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing, which depends on the “reasonably expected benefits” of its agreement, according to the ruling. Young says the university cannot accept a student’s tuition and enroll them in a degree program without providing the faculty support required to complete the program’s requirements.
But the three-judge panel affirmed dismissal of claims the university had promised students will complete their doctoral degree program in 60 credit hours, but instead that time frame instead represents the minimum amount possible.
“It merely reflects a potential path to completion if a doctoral candidate puts forth maximum effort and succeeds at each relevant stage,” U.S. Circuit Judge Adalberto Jordan wrote for the panel.
U.S. Circuit Judge Robin Rosenbaum, who like Jordan is an Obama appointee, joined the opinion along with Senior U.S. District Judge John Steele, a Clinton appointee sitting by designation from the Middle District of Florida.
Young also claimed the university intentionally misled him, so that he would “choose to enroll in a Grand Canyon doctoral program instead of a comparable program offered by another institution that could be completed in less time and for less money.” While Young argued this violated the Arizona Consumer Fraud Act, which protects consumers whose purchase relied on misrepresentations from the seller, the panel found his assertions failed to satisfy the “who, what, when, where, and how” rules for such claims.
They also upheld the dismissal of Young’s claims that the university was unjustly enriched by his tuition payments for research continuation courses, because he hadn’t raised the lower court’s order to arbitrate that claim on appeal.
The panel again remanded the case to Batten for further proceedings.