According to Ms. Dicent, Kaplan lured her into enrolling in Kaplan's online program by using deceptive tactics. She said she had not been informed that she would need 180 hours to graduate, far more hours than a typical four-year degree program requires and that she had not been able to keep her eBooks, which she apparently paid to use. She also said Kaplan's financial aid office retaliated against her because she refused to allow her photo to be used to promote Kaplan.
Unfortunately for Ms. Dicent. she signed an arbitration agreement when she enrolled at Kaplan back in 2014. In that agreement, Dicent promised not to sue Kaplan and to arbitrate any claims she might have against the for-profit. She also agreed to waive her right to a jury trial.
Based on the arbitration agreement, a federal trial court threw out Dicent's suit and ordered her to arbitrate her clam. Dicent, who pursued her case without a lawyer, then appealed to the Third Circuit Court of Appeals, which sided with the trial court.
Dicent argued on appeal that she was not aware of the arbitration agreement, but the Third Circuit did not buy her argument. A clearly labeled Arbitration Agreement was included in Dicent's enrollment packet, the court noted; and Dicent admitted having signed the packet with an e-signature.
Dicent v. Kaplan University is an unfortunate decision. The Obama administration recognized that for-profit colleges were using arbitration agreements to prevent students from suing them for fraud or other misconduct. Obama's Department of Education adopted a regulation forbidding the for-profits from forcing their students to sign arbitration agreements.
Betsy DeVos, President Trump's Secretary of Education, scuttled the Obama ruled shortly after taking office, but a federal court ordered her to implement it. In light of that ruling, Secretary DeVos released new guidance to the for-profit colleges, instructing them to drop enforcement of mandatory arbitration agreements.
In recent years, a few courts have invalidated arbitration agreements on various grounds. Some courts have labeled them adhesion contracts--agreements which a stronger party forces a weaker party to sign on unfavorable terms. Other courts have looked at the inherent unfairness in some of these agreements. For example, a California court refused to enforce an arbitration agreement that required California students to arbitrate their disputes against a medical-training school in Indiana.
Poor Ms. Dicent. Acting without an attorney, she was probably unaware of the legal arguments that can be made against arbitration agreements that for-profit colleges require students to sign as a condition of enrollment. She may not have known that the Obama administration recognized these agreements for what they are--a shyster tactic to protect for-profit colleges from being sued for fraud.
I feel quite certain that Ms. Dicent was telling the truth when she said she did not know about the mandatory arbitration agreement until Kaplan submitted it in district court. Almost all students sign long, turgid documents as a condition of enrollment, and most of them sign without reading. What would be the point? When students enroll at a for-profit college, they are enrolling on the college's terms, and they realize they have no power to negotiate.
What is so bad about arbitration agreements? First of all, the complaining party is usually required to pay half the arbitrator's fees, so arbitration may be more expensive for the student than a lawsuit. Second, arbitration agreements often bar students from banding together to file class actions suits, which is virtually the only way students can obtain justice against the well-funded for-profits with their battalions of lawyers.
Finally, it is well known that arbitration generally favors the corporate party. That is why banks, financial-services institutions, and for-profit colleges force their customers to sign them. The arbitrators know they will see a defrauded student only once, but they will see the corporate party again and again. If they get a reputation for siding with the underdog, the corporations won't choose them to arbitrate their disputes.
The for-profits know they will repeatedly be accused of defrauding their students. The best way to deal with this constant threat is to get the students to promise not to sue before allowing them to enroll. Then when students get defrauded--as many of them will--there will be damn little they can do about it.
Dicent v. Kaplan University, Civil Action No. 3:17-cv-01488 (M.D. Pa. June 15, 2018), aff,d No-18-2982 (3d Cir. Jan. 3, 2019).
Dicent v. Kaplan University, WL 158083, No-18-2982 (3d Cir. Jan. 3, 2019) (unpublished opinion).
Kreighbaum, Andrew (2019, March 18). DeVos Tells Colleges to Drop Arbitration Agreements, Inside Higher Ed.
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