UC Students Look Toward Another Win In Fee Lawsuits By J. DOUGLAS ALLEN-TAYLOR

Friday March 10, 2006

With University of California officials announcing plans to appeal this week’s professional fee hike lawsuit loss in Superior Court in San Francisco, attorneys for the victorious students are already looking ahead to a second lawsuit now making its way through the courts. 

This week, Superior Court Judge James Warren ruled that the university had broken its contract with professional school students. The university promised that their school fees would remain the same throughout their enrollment, but later raised professional student fees to make up for budget shortfalls. The university must return $33.8 million in fees to some 40,000 students. 

The university has 60 days to appeal the ruling. 

Late last year, the Los Angeles Daily Journal quoted university lead attorney Ethan P. Schulman as saying that “students can’t close their eyes to reality and try to rely on narrow language to hold the university liable to a fictional contract.” 

But Jonathan Weissglass of the Altshuler, Berzon, Nussbaum, Rubin & Demain public interest law firm of San Francisco, one of the two firms representing the professional students, said that there was a “written contract” between students and the university at the time the students enrolled. “It was listed in the student catalogue and in fee statements,” Weissglass said. The Superior Court judge agreed. 

This week’s ruling involved professional students who enrolled at the university prior to the end of December, 2002. 

A second lawsuit was filed last July by students enrolled in 2003 and afterwards. Plaintiffs in that lawsuit included UC Berkeley Boalt Hall School of Law student Freeda Yllana of San Jose, UC Berkeley joint Ph.D and J.D. candidate Ross Astoria of Berkeley, and a UCLA Law School student and UCSF School of Medicine student. Weissglass, who represents the students in the second lawsuit as well, says that the two lawsuits were filed on “basically very similar issues.” Weissglass said that the second lawsuit is in the early stages, with “only some low-level discovery” having taken place. 

This week’s ruling was the second time the Superior Court had ruled against the university in the 2002 student case. 

In 2003, the court granted the students an injunction, preventing the university from collecting the additional fees, a decision the university said cost them $22.5 million between 2003 and 2005. In the summer of 2005, university regents narrowly approved what they called a “temporary” two year professional school fee increase—$770 in the first year and $1,050 in the second year—to make up for the money the university could not collect because of the judge’s injunction ruling.  

According to the Los Angeles Daily Journal article, Judge Warren rejected a similar fee rollback injunction for the 2003 students, ruling last September that because those plaintiffs did not file their lawsuit until more than a year after the fee increase took place, the students cast “substantial doubt on their attempts to characterize the May 2004 fee increase as irreparable injury.”  

The vote on the temporary fee increase by UC Regents came on top of a 7 percent professional school fee increase voted on by regents at the same July 2005 meeting. At the regents’ November 2005 meeting, mandatory systemwide fees for professional school students were increased by another 5 percent, effective beginning the summer of 2006. 

At the time of the July 2005 professional fee increase vote , the Office of the President of the university issued a statement saying that “the increases [were] a reflection of the major impact state budget cuts have had on the University of California over the last several years. As a result of these cuts, UC has lost 15 percent of its state funding at a time when population-driven enrollments have increased 19 percent. Additionally, the 2004-05 state budget cut professional school budgets by more than $42 million with the expectation that professional school fees would be increased to offset the cuts. However, fees could only be increased by $37 million, leaving a funding gap of $5 million. The result has been program cutbacks, erosion in the competitiveness of faculty and staff salaries, and substantial student fee increases for students without desirable levels of financial aid.” 

But after Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger proposed a 2006-07 state budget that would use $75 million in state funding to rescind some of the UC student fee increases, the university’s office of the president issued a statement reading that if the governor’s proposals are approved by the legislature this year, “professional students would still see a one-year, temporary $350 increase in the Educational Fee, approved by the Regents last July to help cover lost revenue associated with [the professional fee] lawsuit...” And while the professional fee increases adopted at the July 2005 regents meeting would remain in place, the president’s office said that “the further fee increases adopted in November for 2006-07 would not occur. Total fees for professional students in 2006-07 would range from about $12,000 for nursing to about $25,000 for law.”