Class-action lawsuit filed against Mountain State University
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- For attorneys Rusty Webb, Sean McGinley and Rob Bastress, the case is very simple: Mountain State University intentionally misled its students about its academic standing.
"We believe they've purposely hidden the fact the university has been in trouble since 2008," Webb said Thursday in a phone interview.
That alleged misconduct, and Mountain State University's recent loss of accreditation, led attorneys to file a class action lawsuit Wednesday in Kanawha Circuit Court, Webb said.
The Higher Learning Commission, a member of one of six national bodies that assign accreditation to higher education institutions, announced Tuesday it would withdraw Mountain State University's accreditation.
The school had been on "show cause" status for the past year after allegations of a lack of leadership, integrity and resources at the school. The commission's board said Mountain State University failed to adequately address those concerns during the last year. Accreditation will be officially revoked on Aug. 27.
University officials have pledged to file an appeal within the next two weeks.
Lawsuits have already been filed by students formerly enrolled in the school's nursing program, which will cease to exist at the end of August. Those lawsuits are mentioned in the commission's report as evidence Mountain State University lacks the resources to fulfill its mission.
Mountain State University should be held legally responsible to students on four counts, the most recent lawsuit claims. The university violated the state consumer and protection act by conducting "unfair or deceptive acts or practices" in the conduct of trade or commerce, the suit states.
The school was also negligent in its duty to students, and broke its contract with students that promised a degree from a "fully accredited institution," according to the lawsuit. Students were owed "good faith and fair dealing" from Mountain State University in regard to that contract, and the lawsuit claims this duty was also breached.
Webb said his clients are seeking reimbursement of tuition, as well as punitive damages "in an amount sufficient to ensure that such actions are not repeated." Attorney fees are also sought.
Dale, Amanda and Jeff Burger are listed as plaintiffs. Webb said Dale is the father of Amanda and Jeff, and all three have taken courses at Mountain State since 2008.
The lawsuit states it is also filed on behalf of "all West Virginia residents who were enrolled as students of Mountain State University at any time since July 10, 2008, who have not yet received a degree as of the time of the filing of this complaint."
"From our perspective it's not that complicated," said McGinley, with Bastress also in on the call. "We've got thousands of students in West Virginia (working on) an education that they thought would be at an accredited school."
Citing several different reports from the commission and "media accounts," the suit outlines past discretions at Mountain State University: accreditation issues with its nursing program, an alleged lack of oversight in maintaining or tracking academic quality and reported failures in university leadership. The account dates back to 2008, when the commission first sent Mountain State University word that its practices were in question.
The suit claims from 2008 to 2012, the university "reassured" students that Mountain State University "was in sound shape, when in fact, such was not true."
If a judge certifies the class action claim, Webb said attorneys can seek out any students possibly affected by Mountain State University's loss of accreditation.
"We can help all of them, not just three (people)," Webb said, referring to the Burgers.
The Burgers came to Webb before with claims about Mountain State University, Webb said. The claims were not as strong before Mountain State lost its accreditation, he explained. Since the suit was filed, Webb, McGinley and Bastress said they've received dozens of calls from students curious about how to get involved with the case.
Potentially representing thousands of clients on a single case is a large undertaking, Webb said, but he said he has experience with other large class action cases against the state. As a native of southern West Virginia, Webb said he's followed Mountain State University's troubles for more than a year and the case is personal for him.
"I just think it's a travesty that it appears this university was designed to do nothing but make profits," Webb said.
The lawsuit lists Mountain State University, former president Charles H. Polk and the university's board of trustees as defendants. Each defendant needs to be served notification before the matter can move forward, Webb said. He thought Mountain State University would accept the notices for its board of trustees, but Polk would be served individually.
Although Polk is reportedly living in North Carolina, the attorneys did not see a problem in serving him notice.
"We'll find him," Webb said. "He can run, but he can't hide."
With so many clients potentially involved, Webb said he didn't think the case would make it into a courtroom for at least two years. Bastress and McGinley said they didn't want to speculate as to any potential outcome of the case, but McGinley said the time needed to resolve a case does not reflect the strength of a case.
Messages left with Andy Wessels, Mountain State University spokesman, were not immediately returned.