University of California poised to appeal $38M court decision

Class action payout includes former veterinary students

May 6, 2010 (published)
By Jennifer Fiala

The University of California (UC) likely will appeal a recent court decision that orders the institution to reimburse 2,900 graduate students roughly $38 million in fees after a judge found that they were unduly raised.

Veterinary students enrolled during the 2003-2004 academic year stand to benefit financially from the decision, along with former students of law, business, dentistry, medicine, pharmacy and nursing programs in the UC system.

Individuals affected by the case reportedly could receive thousands of dollars in restitution, though the payouts are highly variable and likely would be temporarily shelved if UC officials challenge the ruling. According to California code, the deadline for filing an appeal is mid-May, or 60 days following notice of the trial court decision. 

San Francisco Superior Court Judge John Munter handed down his ruling on March 11 concerning a class action lawsuit that accused the university of attracting prospective students with an implied promise that professional degree fees would not increase during their enrollment and then consistently raising fees once they attended.

The lawsuit was filed in 2007 on behalf of lead plaintiff Andrea Luquetta, who graduated from UCLA’s School of Law and has publicly accused the institution’s leaders of pulling a “bait and switch.”

In his decision, Munter repeatedly refers to an earlier and almost identical class action lawsuit that cost UC a reported $33 million in 2007, when an appeals court ruled that the university reneged on a promise of fixed fees for those who enrolled before December 2002. Munter stated that at the time students accepted admission in 2003, UC catalogs and websites still advertised that professional degree fees would remain flat for the duration of their enrollment.

University spokesman Ricardo Vazquez acknowledges that promises of stagnant fees were made to earlier academic classes but says that they were not extended to those entering the 2003-2004 academic year. Attorneys for the university argued that by 2003, UC students should have known their fees could increase because it had happened for other students before they enrolled.

Vazquez notes that students initially enrolled during the 2003-2004 academic year incurred a number of fee hikes, even mid-year increases. Fees were raised more than $6,300 per year in some professional programs, court records show. By the time veterinary students who enrolled in 2003 graduated in 2007, their professional fees had increased by more than $4,000 a year to total $10,882 annually. 

In his decision, Munter references published documents in which the university let its promise to hold professional fees steady for continuing students stand until August 2003, which created a reasonable expectation that the fees would remain constant.

To that, Vazquez counters: “We do believe that the trial court made significant errors in this decision. We do believe that the university never made any promise to these students that their fees would remain constant. We will make a final decision concerning our appeal options soon.”

Dr. Patty Nicholas, a 2003-2004 first-year student in the UC Davis veterinary medical program, now practices in Sacramento, Calif., and says she has no knowledge of the lawsuit or the decision. When asked if she remembers being told upon entering the program that tuition and fees would remain stagnant, she draws a blank.

“Quite honestly, it was so long ago. All I do remember is that every time you turned around fees were increased,” she recalls. Nicholas, a 2008 graduate, estimates that she spent $120,000 on her veterinary medical education.

Fellow 2008 graduate Chad O'Brien, DVM, reports hearing about the class action lawsuit a few days ago from a former UC Davis classmate. Like Nicholas, he does not recall believing that his fees would not increase once enrolled in the veterinary medical program.

"Back then, I didn't pay much attention," admits O'Brien, a practitioner in Modesto, Calif. "I didn't realize what vet school was going to cost me. You're locked in a four-year program, for the most part. I just paid the bill."

Tuition at UC Davis averaged roughly $24,000 a year while O'Brien attended. Like most veterinary medical programs in the United States, it's significantly increased as state support for higher education has waned. This year, in-state students at UC Davis are expected to pay more than $30,000 a year, with the price rising to nearly $43,000 for non-California residents.

Concerning the cost of veterinary education, O'Brien adds: "I do remember when I learned that we paid more money per student (to attend the School of Veterinary Medicine) than medical students did. It just seemed ridiculous."

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