11th Circuit sides with student in flap over doctoral support at Grand Canyon University
A doctoral student accused GCU of boosting profits at expense of students & federal government
A federal appeals court ruled Friday that an Arizona-based, for-profit Christian university breached contractual obligations by failing to provide a doctoral student with the necessary requirements to complete their degree program.
Donrich Young, who enrolled in a Grand Canyon University online doctoral program in 2015, claimed the necessary guidance and resources were not made available to allow him to complete his degree within the minimum 60 credit-hour format represented in the college's advertising.
In 2019, Young sued the university on claims of breach of contract, intentional misrepresentation, unjust enrichment and violations of the Arizona Consumer Fraud Act.
He claimed he did not receive the faculty support promised by Grand Canyon to complete his required dissertation, which forced him to take and pay for additional courses. Six other students originally joined in the lawsuit, but a federal judge quickly dismissed them on the basis that it lacked jurisdiction over their claims.
U.S. District Judge Timothy C. Batten, appointed by George W. Bush, sided with Grand Canyon University and dismissed all of Young's claims in 2021.
This is the second time Young has brought his appeal before the 11th Circuit, which initially reversed and remanded for further proceedings.
According to the appellate court's ruling Friday, Young sufficiently showed a contractual relationship existed between himself and the university, and that it breached its promise of providing the necessary faculty support for his dissertation as stated in its academic handbook and course catalog.
The documents describe the doctoral degree program as being "interactive" and requiring students to work directly with their dissertation chair and committee members for continuous feedback along with five mandatory peer review cycles.
The panel found Young had sufficiently shown the university had breached the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing, which depends on the "reasonably expected benefits" of its agreement. They found the university cannot accept a student's tuition and enroll them in a degree program without providing the faculty support required to complete the program's requirements.
But the three-judge panel rejected Young's claims the university had promised students will complete their doctoral degree program in 60 credit hours, but instead that time frame instead represents the minimum amount possible.
"It merely reflects a potential path to completion if a doctoral candidate puts forth maximum effort and succeeds at each relevant stage," U.S. Circuit Judge Adalberto Jordan, a Barack Obama appointee, wrote for the panel.
Fellow Obama appointee U.S. Circuit Judge Robin Rosenbaum and Senior U.S. District Judge John Steele, a Bill Clinton appointee sitting by designation from the Middle District of Florida, joined Jordan's opinion.
also claimed the university intentionally misled him, so that he would
“choose to enroll in a Grand Canyon doctoral program instead of a
comparable program offered by another institution that could be
completed in less time and for less
money.” While Young argued this violated the Arizona Consumer Fraud Act, which protects consumers whose purchase relied on misrepresentations from the seller, the panel found his assertions failed to satisfy the "who, what, when, where, and how" rules for such claims.
They also upheld the dismissal of Young's claims that the university was unjustly enriched by his tuition payments for research continuation courses, because he hadn't raised the lower court's order to arbitrate that claim on appeal.
The panel again remanded the case to Batten for further proceedings.