Cooley Law School's Defamation Suit Dismissal Upheld by 6th Cir.

By William Peacock, Esq. on July 03, 2014 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

It's been a busy summer for the Thomas M. Cooley School of Law, with cut campuses, layoffs, and today, lost litigation.

What was the law school litigating? Oh, just some defamation claims brought against two lawyers that were trying to sue the school over allegedly inflated employment statistics. Way back in 2011, we reported on the school's efforts to silence their litigious critics through a defamation action. Those efforts failed when a district court found that Cooley was a limited purpose public figure for purposes of discussing the value of a law school degree.

Now, the Sixth Circuit has chimed in and affirmed the dismissal.

What Did They Say, Exactly?

It started with the firm, formerly known as Kurzon Strauss, LLP, reaching out on a message board to prospective clients for a class action suit against the school. In the firm's initial post, it made some pretty serious allegations:

  • Cooley "grossly inflates its post-graduate employment and salary information"[;]
  • "[T]here are reports that there [sic] students are defaulting on loans at an astounding 41 percent rate, and that the school is currently being investigated by the DOE for failing to adequately disclose its students' true default rates[;]"
  • "[M]ost likely schools like Thomas Cooley will continue to defraud unwitting students unless held civilly accountable."

Those statements were later retracted to the extent that they were couched in fact, rather than opinion. Later, in a circulated class action draft, the firm stated:

  • Cooley "blatantly misrepresent[s] and manipulat[es] its employment statistics to prospective students, employing the type of 'Enron-style' accounting techniques that would leave most for-profit companies facing the long barrel of a government indictment and the prospect of paying a substantial criminal fine[;]"
  • Cooley "grossly inflates its graduates' reported mean salaries[.]"

Why Did the Lawsuit Fail?

The short answer is this: both courts agreed that Cooley is a limited purpose public figure for purposes of discussing the value of a law school degree, especially after the school released a report to contradict the wave of "law school scam blogs" that popped up after the legal industry's bubble burst. The school put itself in the middle of the discussion by releasing the report. It also has effective channels (blogs, website, etc.) for continuing the debate, and as the largest law school in the country, it has a prominent role in the debate.

Despite being the largest law school in the country, and producing more than thousand graduates per year (many of whom are unemployed), the school botched one of its arguments, that the law firm's commercial speech was unprotected, by not advancing the argument in the lower court. Whoops.

The Sixth Circuit panel also held that there was insufficient evidence in the record to advance an argument of actual malice, and declined to address the district court's holding that some of the firm's statements were "exaggeration or hyperbole" or "substantially true." (Whoops, again. Even the district court thought Cooley was, ahem, disingenuous.)

To recap: Cooley, a school with less than impressive outcomes for its graduates, sued a firm that was talking trash, much of which was apparently justified. By doing so, the school has ensured that we're still talking about Cooley's employment statistics three years later.

Well played.

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