College-student disciplinary contract claims

The Pennsylvania Superior Court recently revisited – and rejected – breach of contract claims brought by a student dismissed from a private college. Reardon v. Allegheny College, --- A.2d --- 2007 WL 1576007 (Pa. Super.)  Thus, the Pennsylvania courts continue to adhere to a rather strict contract view of such claims, rejecting broader “due process” type claims.

The disciplinary procedures in the student handbook were the relevant contractual terms. The student did not argue that the terms were not bargained for, that she was unaware of the terms, or that the terms were ambiguous. The terms set forth “minimum procedural safeguards notice, the admission of relevant testimony, the right to call witnesses and present evidence, and the right to be represented by a member of the college community.” Reardon at pages 8-9. The student handbook did “not contain complicated procedural or evidentiary rules.” Reardon at page 8.

The court reiterated that, if a student cannot show a breach of any contractual terms, judges will not

review the college’s private, internal decisions, such as whether the dismissal was “just.” One might at first think this college-student contract rather unusual as it appears that, when the student claims the college did not perform as required, the college gets to unilaterally judge its own performance. But that is not the case. In a contracts class, we might say there is a difference between the customer claiming Acme Widget Co. failed to ship widgets versus Acme deciding to end its contract to sell widgets to the customer. Here, the court did consider student’s allegations of non-performance of the required terms, and concluded the college honored its promise to abide by the terms. But as such, the college’s decision (made in accordance with the terms) to “terminate” the contract was not reviewable. 

This case indicates that simple clarity of contract terms is preferred. That would tend to cut short any argument that the terms are ambiguous or similar contentions that distract attention from the plain words of the contract. Instead, the court will focus on compliance with simple, clear terms. And, being simple and clear, the terms should be easy for the college to follow in practice and thus “suffice to insulate the institution’s internal, private decisions from judicial review.” Reardon at page 6.