Sanford Brown College class certification order reversed at Fifth District

A class certification order entered by former Madison County Circuit Judge Daniel Stack has been reversed at the Fifth District Appellate Court.

The court held that individualized issues predominate in a case against the parent company of Sanford Brown College - Career Education Corporation - by former students claiming the school did not deliver on promises about their degree and future career path.

“[W]e find that the plaintiffs, in order to recover for a violation of the (Illinois Private Business and Vocational) Schools Act or its accompanying rules or regulations, must prove that said violation caused them harm,” wrote Justice Stephen Spomer in the Rule 23 order released on Oct. 25.

“It is clear from the record before us that if any one of the named plaintiffs is able to show that they were so harmed, this will not necessarily establish a right of recovery in all the other class members.”

The suit was originally filed in 2008 by attorney John Carey of Carey & Danis in St. Louis on behalf of Jenna Lilley, Jessica Lilley, Candice Lindsey and Ashley Cunningham and approximately 2,000 students at the school’s Collinsville site.

Shortly before he retired in December 2010, Stack certified the class on claims that the college violated the Schools Act. He had previously thrown out fraud counts contained in the complaint.

Among other things, the plaintiffs claim they were misled about the value of a medical assistant’s degree from the school, how it would transfer to traditional colleges and what careers it would lead to.

During hearings in Madison County, Sanford Brown - represented by James Monafo, John Richmond and others - argued that the plaintiffs were attempting to argue “educational malpractice,” an issue not covered by Illinois law and that their complaints lacked causation.

Carey had argued that the school had given the class members “a worthless piece of paper” at hearings leading up to Stack’s class certification order.

“Although the complaint alleges various violations of the provisions of the Schools Act that require written disclosures of graduation and placement statistics in the enrollment agreement (105 ILCS 425/15.1 (West 2008)), all of the plaintiffs testified that they did not read, and did not rely, on these statistics in their decision to enroll at the College,” Spomer wrote.

“Rather, each of the plaintiffs complain of various misrepresentations that were made by different sales representatives of the College that they encountered. The scenarios encountered by the various members of the class as far as which admissions representative they encountered, what, if any, false representations were made, whether they relied on those representations in making their enrollment decision, and whether their decision to enroll at the College caused them some type of damage, would have to be borne out on an individual basis in order for each class member to recover.”

Spomer wrote that the four named plaintiffs can proceed with their individual causes of action and, if successful, receive an award of actual damages, treble damages if fraud is proven, injunctive relief, and reasonable attorney fees and costs.

Justice James Donovan concurred with Spomer.

Justice Melissa Chapman dissented.

“I believe my colleagues misapprehend what are the substantive issues, in holding that individualized questions of law and fact predominate, i.e., whether the class members relied on any misrepresentations by school agents and whether the school's violations of the Acts caused the class members to incur damages,” Chapman wrote.

“The trial judge got it exactly right when he stated in his class certification order that 'causation' is not a factor as it appears that the plaintiffs need only prove violation of the

Illinois Private Business and Vocational Schools Act, 105 ILCS 425/1 et seq. and that the members of the class are all persons meant to be protected by that act in order to establish a right to recover…

“This is a consumer-oriented action that is most appropriate to class litigation. The certification of the class in this case would serve the interests of justice and judicial economy while preserving defendants' due process rights and defenses.”

The case is Madison case number 08-L-113.

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