Appeals Court: Student-Athletes Lack Standing to Pursue Academic Malpractice Claim against UNC

May 26, 2017

A North Carolina state appeals court has affirmed the ruling of a trial court that a group of student-athletes who attended the University of North Carolina lack standing in their claim that the school deceived them by promising them a legitimate education, while instead enrolling them in “hundreds of sham courses.”
“Where the plaintiffs’ claims fail to demonstrate a particularized actual injury and are not based on a legally protected interest as required by North Carolina law, the plaintiffs cannot establish standing, and the trial court did not err in granting defendant’s motion to dismiss,” wrote the court.
The named plaintiffs in the case were James Arnold and Leah Metcalf, who attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC) on athletic scholarships and graduated in 2006 and 2009, respectively. They are seeking damages and injunctive relief on behalf of themselves and a putative class of “all persons who attended UNC on athletic scholarships between 1993 and at least 2011.”
The plaintiffs allege that UNC entered into “scholarship agreements” with the student-athletes, which promised a “UNC education” in exchange for their participation in athletics. The plaintiffs alleged that they relied on statements made during the recruitment process by coaches, academic counselors, and others that UNC would provide an “excellent combination of great academics and great athletics” and that “student-athletes would be cared for as part of the UNC Tar Heel Family . . . .” The complaint also referenced, inter alia, the defendant’s charter and “Mission Statement,” publicity materials, and the Student-Athlete Handbook, which the plaintiffs contend guaranteed a certain caliber of education they expected to receive.
“The crux of the plaintiffs’ complaint is their claim that they were funneled into ‘non-rigorous,’ ‘shadow curriculum’ courses offered by the Department of African and Afro-American Studies (the AAAS Department) from 1993 through 2011,” wrote the court. “The plaintiffs allege these courses were deficient because they involved ‘no class meetings, . . . no supervision, no drafts of papers were reviewed, . . . no faculty feedback was given, and students had no communication whatsoever with the course’s listed professor . . . .’”
The appeals court went on to note that Metcalf, a basketball player, claimed that she “chose to attend UNC over other universities because of ‘the promise of a good education and a second family.’ Metcalf also hoped to become a physician. Once at UNC, Metcalf pursued a mathematics major and acknowledges that UNC staff ‘did not try to dissuade her’ from this decision. Instead, Metcalf alleges she was encouraged to ‘balance out her schedule with less challenging . . . AAAS courses.’ Metcalf took both mathematics and AAAS courses, completed a double major, and graduated in 2006. Upon graduation, Metcalf worked in a clerical position and as a camp counselor. She now plays basketball in Europe and has ‘abandoned her plans to be a physician.’”
Arnold, a football player, claimed he “chose to attend UNC because he believed it would provide a better education and a chance to earn playing time on the football field. He also alleges he intended to pursue computer programing at UNC. At the beginning of his freshman year, he was ‘given a pre-assigned course schedule,’ featuring ‘shadow curriculum’ courses in the AAAS Department. Arnold asserts he inquired about these courses, but ultimately accepted them on his academic counselor’s advice.”
Despite becoming “extremely disappointed” when he learned his desired computer science major would conflict with his football obligations, he opted to major in business management. However, his advisor told him that “[i]t would be better for you if we put you in African American [(AAAS)] studies.” Arnold ultimately majored in African and African-American Studies through the AAAS Department and successfully graduated in 2009. Since graduating, Arnold alleges he has been “unable to get a job requiring a collegiate degree.”
UNC moved to dismiss the complaint, a motion a state court judge granted for lack of standing. The plaintiffs appealed.
The appeals court began by noting that “a plaintiff bears the burden to establish the following elements of standing: (1) an injury in fact ‘that is (a) concrete and particularized and (b) actual or imminent, not conjectural or hypothetical; (2) . . . fairly traceable to the challenged action of the defendant; and (3) it is likely, as opposed to merely speculative, that the injury will be redressed by a favorable decision.’ Sullivan v. State, 170 N.C. App. 433, 434, 612 S.E.2d 397, 399 (2005) (quoting Estate of Apple, 168 N.C. App. at 177, 607 S.E.2d at 16).”
The appeals court zeroed in on Arendas ex rel. Arendas v. N.C. High Sch. Athletic Ass’n, Inc., 217 N.C. App. 172, 175, 718 S.E.2d 198, 200 (2011) (citing Coker v. DaimlerChrysler Corp., 172 N.C. App. 386, 391, 617 S.E.2d 306, 310 (2005)).
In Arendas, two high school basketball players sued the North Carolina High School Athletic Association after their school’s state championship win was vacated, and they were declared ineligible to participate in high school athletics for one year. Id. at 173, 718 S.E.2d at 199. The plaintiff-athletes claimed that the vacated win would cause them injury in the form of lost scholarships, lost job opportunities, and lost college prospects. Id. at 175-76, 718 S.E.2d at 200. This Court, however, determined that the plaintiff-athletes’ alleged injuries resulting from the vacated championship win were hypothetical as ‘there [was] nothing . . . actually demonstrating how the revocation of the Championship resulted in [injury].’ Id. at 175, 718 S.E.2d at 200. As such, this Court held that as the plaintiff-athletes ‘did not suffer a particularized actual loss, they d[id] not have standing . . . .’ Id. at 176, 718 S.E.2d at 200.
“In the instant case, plaintiffs’ claimed ‘injury in fact’ is that defendant’s alleged scheme of funneling them into ‘academically unsound courses,’ namely, AAAS courses, hampered their cognitive strength, de-valued their degrees, and limited their job opportunities.
“The plaintiffs contend that their injuries are concrete and identifiable,” wrote the court. “However, we believe these injuries are speculative at best.”
The court affirmed because plaintiffs’ claims “fail to demonstrate that they ‘suffered a particularized actual loss’ and are not based on a ‘legally protected interest’ as required by North Carolina law.”
James Arnold and Leah Metcalf, individually, and on behalf of all others similarly situated v. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill; Ct. App. N.C.; No. COA16-573, 2017 N.C. App. LEXIS 292; 4/18/17
Attorneys of Record: (for plaintiff-appellants) Ferguson, Chambers & Sumter, P.A., by Geraldine Sumter, and Mehri & Skalet, PLLC, by Cyrus Mehri and N. Jeremi Duru, pro hac vice. (for defendant-appellee) Attorney General Joshua H. Stein, by Special Deputy Attorney General Stephanie Brennan, and Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom LLC, by Amy Van Gelder and Lisa Gilford.


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