As we reported here on The Torch back in June, former Valdosta State University student Hayden Barnes is now fighting his legal battle against the Board of Regents of the University System of Georgia in state court—and the early returns are encouraging for student rights.
Here’s the backstory. Barnes originally included his breach of contract claim in the federal lawsuit he filed in January 2008 with the help of FIRE and attorneys Robert Corn-Revere and Cary Wiggins. In addition to the First Amendment, due process, Americans with Disabilities Act, and Rehabilitation Act claims brought against the named defendants (former VSU President Ronald Zaccari, relevant VSU administrators, the university itself, and the Board of Regents), Barnes alleged that VSU and the Board of Regents had violated the contract formed with Barnes when he enrolled. Specifically, Barnes argued that VSU and the Board of Regents failed to follow their own stated policies governing student discipline and expulsion by kicking him out of school without notice or a hearing.
The federal district court agreed that "the VSU Student Handbook provided to Barnes upon enrollment constituted a valid, written contract" that had been breached by Barnes’ expulsion—but only with respect to the Board of Regents, as the court dismissed VSU as a party to the proceedings, finding that it was controlled by the Board. On appeal from the Board, however, the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit reversed the district court’s holding, finding instead that the Board of Regents could not properly be sued in federal court because it had not expressly consented to waiving its Eleventh Amendment immunity from breach of contract claims.
Faced with this ruling, Barnes filed his breach of contract claim against the Board of Regents in state court this past March.
Earlier this week, the Superior Court of Fulton County issued its first ruling in the case, denying the Board of Regents’ motion to dismiss Barnes’ suit. Here’s the meat of the ruling:
A valid written contract may be formed when multiple signed agreements by the parties demonstrate their intent to enter into a binding contract and the individual documents together include all necessary terms of the contract.
Plaintiff’s claim is based on a violation of university policies and procedures on confidentiality and student discipline as stated in VSU Student Code of Conduct and other written agreements. Plaintiff asserts that the VSU Student Code of Conduct and the VSU Access Office and Counseling Center document establish written contracts upon which his claim is based. The VSU Student Code of Conduct contains disciplinary policies and procedures and expressly provides that "this statement and any additional rules and regulations are binding on both the student and the Valdosta State University administration." The Court finds the document demonstrates an intent to enter into a binding agreement. The Court further finds Plaintiff and VSU manifested their intent to be bound when Plaintiff paid tuition and VSU issued to Plaintiff the Student Code of Conduct. In addition to stating the terms of counseling service provided, the VSU Access Office and Counseling Center document contains a confidentiality provision which expressly states "information will not be released outside the Center without written consent except when required by law." The VSU Access Office and Counseling Center document was signed by Plaintiff, demonstrating his agreement to receive services according to the terms and provisions contained therein.
Accordingly, the Court finds that Plaintiff has established the existence of valid written contracts which form the basis of the breach of contract claims and Defendant’s defense of sovereign immunity is waived. Therefore, Defendant’s Motion to Dismiss is hereby DENIED.
[Internal citations omitted; emphasis in original.]
This is an important ruling for Barnes’ case and for student rights in Georgia more generally.
First, this initial ruling may well prove to be the ballgame for Barnes’ case against the Board of Regents. If the Board can’t claim sovereign immunity and the court has found that a contract existed, the breach of contract should be relatively straightforward to prove. As established in the ongoing federal case, the facts here are seemingly beyond dispute: Barnes was expelled, and the applicable rules governing expulsion weren’t followed. Additionally, Barnes’ confidentiality wasn’t maintained by the Counseling Center. It’ll be interesting to watch how the case proceeds from here, but my sense is that the Board of Regents has now failed in its effort to avoid an embarrassing, potentially costly, and well-deserved defeat.
With regard to student rights in Georgia, this is a significant ruling because it reaffirms the existence of a binding contractual relationship between a student and his or her university. As FIRE has argued at length, most particularly in the context of the relationship between a student and a private institution, conceiving of the relationship between student and university as contractual in nature means that students are protected against colleges that fail to honor the promises they make in promotional materials and their own policies. In other words, the contractual theory of student rights provides legal recourse against colleges like VSU that ignore their own policies when they find it convenient to do so.
Georgia state courts had previously found the existence of such a relationship in other cases, most notably Morehouse Coll., Inc. v. McGaha, 627 S.E.2d 39, 41 (Ga. Ct. App. 2005), cert denied, 2006 Ga. LEXIS 434 (2006), holding that "Georgia law permits an expelled student to bring a breach of contract action against a private educational institution" when the institution fails to honor promises made in a student handbook. In ruling against the Board of Regents here, the court relied on Morehouse—and the more legal precedent in favor of a contractual relationship, the better.
We’ll keep you posted on further developments in Barnes’ cases—both state and federal—right here on The Torch.