Enforcing Disclosure Requirements in the Admissions Process

October 31, 2013

By: John Gaal

admissions-applicationMany colleges and universities require applicants to provide information on arrests and convictions as part of the application process.  A recent case, Matter of Powers v. St. John’s University School of Law, illustrates just how costly it can be for the applicant to be less than completely forthcoming. The St. John’s University School of Law, in its 2005 application form, required applicants to disclose whether they had ever been charged with, pleaded guilty to, or been found guilty of, a crime.  The application required the individual to certify that his or her answers (to any application inquiry) were “complete and accurate” and noted that the failure to provide truthful answers could result in “denial of admission, dismissal, or rescission of an awarded degree….” Long after a student was admitted to the Law School, the School learned of information that led it to conclude that the student had not been completely forthcoming in his original application for admission with respect to a criminal conviction.  Although the student had noted his conviction for possession of a controlled substance during the application process, it was only later that the School learned that he was originally charged with intent to distribute.  Upon learning of this information, the School required the student to supplement his application information with respect to the incident.  Based on this supplemental information, the School determined that the student’s original application contained “material omissions and misrepresentations” involving the actual criminal charges that had been brought against him.  Although by this time the student had successfully completed three semesters of law school, the School rescinded his admission and, in effect, denied his application for admission nunc pro tunc. Not surprisingly, the student commenced a proceeding, claiming that the School’s actions were arbitrary and capricious and should be overturned.  In a split decision, New York’s Appellate Division for the Second Department ruled in the School’s favor.  The Court determined that the School’s decision involved an appropriate exercise of discretion after a full review of the facts and circumstances and as a result it was not arbitrary and capricious.  And, given that the original charges (which the student acknowledged were true) involved distribution and possession with the intent to distribute a controlled dangerous substance, the Court found that the penalty was not disproportionate to the offense.  One Justice in dissent felt that the School, in several respects, had gone too far and would have remanded the case back to the School to reconsider.  The dissent found that the actual penalty imposed – retroactive denial of admission – was even more severe than dismissal, since it effectively wiped the student’s record clear of his three successful semesters as if the student had never gained admission to the School (without any evidence that the School correspondingly returned the student’s three semesters of tuition). While it may not be surprising that the Court recognized the School’s right to deny admission to a student who it believed had not been fully forthcoming in the application process, what stands out about this case, of course, is that the School only made that determination halfway through the student’s successful completion of its law school program.  Given the holding in the case (and the specific language of the School’s application), it is possible that had the School learned of this deception only after the student had completed his course of studies (even years later), the Court might still have recognized the School’s right to rescind his degree. The decision certainly highlights the value of requiring applicants to certify the accuracy of the information they submit.