College & Workforce Readiness

College-Admissions Bribery Scheme Sparks First Round of Lawsuits

By Catherine Gewertz — March 15, 2019 4 min read
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Benjamin Franklin may have said that nothing in life is certain but death and taxes. But he overlooked lawsuits.

Yes, boys and girls, this week’s huge college-admissions bribery scandal has spawned the first round of what will almost certainly be a mess of lawsuits attacking the integrity of the college admissions process. And already the first lawsuit, filed by two Stanford University students, has gotten weird.

Erica Olsen, one of two original plaintiffs in the lawsuit filed Wednesday in U.S. District Court in San Francisco, has dropped out without explanation.

Six more plaintiffs have joined Kalea Woods, the other original plaintiff, in an amended lawsuit filed Thursday. Originally, the suit claimed that the value of their Stanford degrees has been diminished because the bribery scandal has raised questions about whether students are admitted based on merit. That line of argument is absent from the amended complaint.

Instead, the plaintiffs seek damages from the eight universities mentioned in the indictments for negligence and deceptive practices. No charges have been filed against those institutions, which claim they were victimized by the fraud scheme.

Opening the Door?

The attorneys in the federal lawsuit are asking the court to certify their case as a class action, a move that would allow a flood of college students nationwide to join in the claims. They claim that anyone who was rejected from the eight universities between 2012 and 2018 could have a claim for damages because they paid admission fees for a process that the institutions misrepresented as fair and based on merit.

“Unqualified students found their way into the admissions rolls of highly selective universities, while those students who played by the rules and did not have college-bribing parents were denied admission,” the suit says.

“Meanwhile, each of the universities were negligent in failing to maintain adequate protocols and security measures in place to guarantee the sanctity of the college admissions process, and to ensure that their own employees were not engaged in these type of bribery schemes.”

A quick refresher, for those of you who somehow missed this huge story: Federal prosecutors in Boston unveiled indictments Tuesday against 50 people—including 33 high-powered parents—who allegedly participated in a scheme to use bribes and lies to get students admitted to elite colleges. At the heart of the conspiracy was William “Rick” Singer, who ran a Southern California college-planning company. Prosecutors say he had a network of college coaches that would take bribes to certify applicants as recruited athletes, giving them a leg up in admission. And they say he also paid people to falsify students’ ACT or SAT scores to boost their chances of admission.

The eight universities affected by the alleged conspiracy are the University of California-Los Angeles, the University of Southern California, the University of San Diego, Stanford University, the University of Texas-Austin, Wake Forest University, Georgetown University and Yale University. They have fired employees named in the indictment or put them on leave.

‘Stellar’ Students Rejected

Woods, the Stanford student who’s still in the lawsuit, paid $85 to apply to USC in 2017, with “stellar” scores on her college entrance exams, but was rejected, the suit says. Joining her as a plaintiff is Nicholas James Johnson, who applied to Stanford and the University of Texas-Austin with a 4.65 grade-point-average and a 1500 on the SAT, but didn’t get in. He now attends the honors college at Rutgers University.

Another new plaintiff is Lauren Fidelak, a Tulane University student who applied to UCLA and USC with a 4.0 grade-point-average and a 34 on the ACT. When she was rejected, Fidelak was so upset that she had “an emotional breakdown and needed to be hospitalized” in Boston, the lawsuit said. The other student plaintiff is Tyler Bendis, who applied unsuccessfully to Stanford, UCLA and USD, and despite a 4.0 GPA, didn’t get in. He now attends a community college in Orange County, Calif. Two of the students’ parents have also joined the lawsuit.

“Had Plaintiffs known that the system was warped and rigged by fraud, they would not have spent the money to apply to the school,” it says. “They also did not receive what they paid for—a fair admissions consideration process.”

Stanford issued a statement saying it believes the lawsuit “is without merit. We take the issues raised through the events of this week very seriously. While we continue to closely examine our policies and processes to see if improvements should be made, we stand behind the integrity of our admissions process.”

Another lawsuit was filed this week as well.

In papers filed in San Francisco Superior Court, former Oakland Unified School District teacher Jennifer Kay Toy argues that her son, Joshua, wasn’t admitted to some of the institutions despite a 4.2 grade-point average, according to The Los Angeles Times. But that lawsuit seeks damages from the adults in the scheme for their “despicable actions.” It doesn’t name the universities as defendants.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the High School & Beyond blog.

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