Litigating Against Schools: Breach of Contract

If you have a child in school, if you're a student yourself, or if you work in an academic setting, school can have a big impact on every aspect of your life. When you are unhappy with the treatment you or a loved one is receiving from your school, it might be time to take legal action – particularly when you feel your school has broken a promise, taken advantage of you financially, or violated your trust. The cost of education has risen dramatically over the years, particularly for colleges, universities, and private schools. It can be frustrating to take on the financial hardship of getting ahead academically only to have your school fail to fulfill its end of the bargain.

Breach of contract is one reason you may choose to sue your school. It can be very difficult to sue a school for failing to provide an adequate education for you or your child – courts have been known to throw out lawsuits based on educational malpractice simply because they are exceedingly difficult to prove. Still, it may be possible to proceed by claiming a private school or college did not keep a certain promise, did not provide a specific service, or did not do something advertised prior to enrollment.

If you feel your school has misrepresented the services it provides or intentionally misled you in order to get you to enroll, you may be able to take legal action. First, find out more about what it means to be in breach of a contract, as well as the types of outcomes you might reasonably expect in court.

What Does Breach of Contract Mean?

In general, a breach of contract occurs when one party in a binding agreement fails to deliver on the terms of the contract. In the case of schools, this can include particular broken promises or false claims made to get students to enroll that ended up presenting inaccurate information. A breach of contract can occur in either written or verbal agreements, and conflicts may be resolved either in or out of court.

As an example, students have pursued lawsuits against for-profit or vocational schools when the institutions intentionally misinformed them about how long it would take to complete a degree or certificate; whether the school would provide adequate instruction in a subject; whether a student had the capability to complete the coursework; and whether graduates would find good-paying jobs after earning a degree or certificate.

Before a court will consider that a contract has been breached, the lawsuit must meet four requirements:

  • The contract must be valid and contain all elements needed to be legally sound. Without these elements, the contract will be considered invalid, and no lawsuit can be pursued. A lawyer can help you determine whether your contract is valid.
  • The plaintiff must demonstrate that the school breached the terms of the contract or agreement.
  • The plaintiff must have upheld their end of the contract.
  • The plaintiff must have given the school warning of the breach before pursuing legal action. It is best to give this notification in writing, so you have proof that the conversation occurred.

Additionally, three types of breaches exist. A material breach is significant enough to excuse the plaintiff from upholding their end of the bargain. A partial breach is not as severe and does not typically excuse the plaintiff from completing their required duties. Finally, an anticipatory breach happens when a plaintiff suspects the other party will not complete their duties because they expressed an intention not to do so. This can be exceedingly difficult to prove in court and should not be pursued without skilled legal representation.

What Must You Prove to Sue a School?

Any type of school can be sued, including public schools, private schools, elementary schools, high schools, colleges, and universities. In most cases, you must work with a school district to attempt to resolve any complaints before you can sue by filing an administrative complaint.

Additionally, you'll need to prove the allegations in your complaint are true. This includes gathering statements from witnesses, accessing security footage, and documenting any damages you may have suffered. After the district or institution has reviewed and investigated your case, they will likely offer you some sort of remedy. If you are not satisfied with their actions at that point, you may move forward with suing the school.

Before filing any kind of formal complaint against a school, you'll want to consult an attorney. Knowing the exact process for suing a school can be complicated and overwhelming, and without appropriate legal knowledge, your case could be thrown out of court altogether. Additionally, an attorney will be able to conduct appropriate and timely research and know how best to move forward with your case to achieve the best possible outcome.

Regarding breach of contract, a judge must decide the following:

  • Did a contract exist?
  • What did the contract require of each party?
  • Was the contract modified at any point?
  • Did one party breach the contract or fail to uphold their end of the agreement?
  • Was the breach material to the contract?
  • Does the breaching party have the ability to legally enforce the contract?
  • What damages were caused by the breach?

Because it can be difficult to answer these questions in court and prove liability in breach of contract cases, it is best to consult an attorney experienced in education law before getting started. Your lawyer can help you decide how to proceed in a way that will achieve the best possible outcome for your case.

Common Defenses to Breach of Contract Suits

Before going to court, it can be beneficial to know the possible defenses that may be used to excuse a breach of contract or claim. Common breach of contract defenses may include:

  • Fraud, which is defined as​ “knowing misrepresentation of the truth or concealment of a material fact to induce another to act to his or her detriment.” This defense implies a contract is not valid because the plaintiff failed to disclose vital information or falsely represented themselves. To qualify as fraud, the misrepresentation must have been intentional.
  • Duress, which means one party was forced to sign the contract by physical force or other types of threats. It can render a contract invalid if both parties did not freely choose to sign.
  • Undue influence, which means one party had the advantage of power over the other and used that control to force them to sign the contract.
  • Mistakes that would render the contract invalid, which may include both parties being misinformed or unclear about the subject matter at the time the agreement was made.
  • Statute of limitations, which means the time limit for taking legal action has been exceeded. A breach of contract case can be thrown out if the statute of limitations has expired. This timeframe can be different in each state but is generally three to six years for a written contract.

To help determine what type of defense may be used in your case, speak to an experienced education law attorney. Your lawyer can help you understand the legal ramifications of your case and whether you will succeed in court.

Examples of Breach of Contract Cases

The following breach of contract cases were successfully brought before the court and avoided dismissal:

  • In Squires vs. Sierra Nevada Educational Foundation, parents claimed a private school had failed to provide appropriate diagnostic testing and individual reading instruction to their elementary school student.
  • In Ross vs. Creighton University, a college student claimed that after a university recruited him to play basketball, they didn't keep their promise to provide him with tutoring to adequately prepare him for academic success. The student also alleged the university knew he was not prepared for college before recruiting him.
  • In one high-profile case, a group of students sued Trump University for fraud, alleging that the school misrepresented itself as a “university” despite lacking accreditation and also falsely claiming Donald Trump had “hand picked” the instructors. The students were awarded $25 million.
  • In Jeffers vs. American University of Antigua, several students claimed a nursing school lied when it promised graduates would be able to take a licensing exam and enroll in advanced nursing programs, despite the fact that the school lacked accreditation.
  • In CenCor Inc. vs. Tolman, students alleged that a private vocational school failed to provide English language instruction, modern equipment, and computer training. According to the students, the school broke the promises that prompted them to enroll.
  • In Till vs. Delta School of Commerce Inc., a student was reimbursed for her tuition when the business school failed to keep its promise to provide a program that would allow her to earn a transferable accounting degree.

Possible Outcomes of Suing for Breach of Contract

If the court finds one party to be in breach of a contract, the plaintiff may receive several possible awards or remedies. The most common remedy for a breach of contract case is a monetary payment, such as tuition or lost wages. Other remedies may include damages, which are amounts of money that compensate a plaintiff for any loss they suffered. Punitive damages may involve extra money if the breach of contract was especially egregious or intentional.

An injunction is another type of damage that may be awarded in a breach of contract case. This is an order by the court that requires the party in breach of the contract to stop doing whatever action caused the initial damage. A court also might order the rescission or cancellation of a contract. This would occur when the plaintiff has been so severely injured by the breach that they are allowed to terminate the agreement without fulfilling their part of the bargain.

How to Proceed When Suing a School

If you are wondering whether your lawsuit against your school has merit, consider consulting an attorney who is experienced in breach of contract cases. A knowledgeable lawyer will help you explore your options, including potential liability in your case and whether the defendant could be immune from the lawsuit for any reason.

Taking the time to talk with a lawyer who specializes in your type of grievance will be invaluable. They will be able to use the benefit of years of expertise to help you decide whether you have an adequate case. If you don't have enough of a case for a formal suit, your legal advisor may be able to help direct you toward another way to preserve and protect your rights. If, on the other hand, you do have enough evidence for a case, your legal advisor can help you work from the very beginning to craft a case that is compelling and likely to win.

Remember that your school likely has a very robust team of legal experts working to protect them at all times. Even if you have legal experience yourself, that's a lot to be going up against. Your first step needs to be finding an advisor or attorney who has specific experience litigating against schools—successfully.

Suing a school is definitely not an action you should pursue on your own. Finding an experienced lawyer who knows how to litigate against schools successfully is a crucial part of your strategy. Fortunately, Joseph D. Lento is able to help.

National Students Rights Attorney

The Lento Law Firm has a deep understanding of the many issues students and others in academia face. If you or your student faces a specific concern or if you feel your family has experienced unfair treatment due to breach of contract, Joseph D. Lento is ready to help you pursue justice. For years, he's helped students and families work towards a successful outcome to find relief. Contact our office today at 888-535-3686 to schedule a consultation.