Part of former TSU law student's suit over dismissal from school remanded

By Takesha Thomas | Jan 10, 2019

HOUSTON – A state appeals court has reversed part of a trial court's decision that dismissed a former law student's claims against Texas Southern University over his dismissal from law school.

The Dec. 31, 2018, ruling in the Court of Appeals of the 1st District of Texas reversed the 164th District Court of Harris County's decision that dismissed Ivan Villarreal's constitutional claims against Texas Southern University (TSU) and several faculty members of the university. The Appeals Court affirmed the dismissal of the claims of breach of contract or personal liability of the individual defendants for constitutional violations.

"We conclude that under governing precedents, Villarreal has alleged viable constitutional claims, and we reverse the trial court’s judgment in part and remand for further proceedings," the opinion states.

Villarreal, a former law student at TSU, had argued that "the trial court improperly granted a plea to the jurisdiction on his constitutional claims, his breach-of-contract claim, and his claims directed at the university employees in their official and personal capacities," the opinion states.

Villarreal had argued on the basis of the Texas constitution.

In a concurring opinion, Justice Michael Massengale wrote in part that, "The Texas Bill of Rights provides that no 'citizen of this state shall be deprived of life, liberty, property, privileges or immunities, or in any manner disfranchised, except by the due course of the law of the land.' As this provision was understood when our Texan predecessors adopted the 1876 state constitution, a law student’s dismissal from school for poor academic performance properly should not be considered a deprivation of liberty. Even if it were, in the circumstances of this case the dismissal was not inconsistent with 'the due course of the law of the land.'”

Villarreal, who had been enrolled in the Thurgood Marshall School of Law at Texas Southern University as a first-year student in August 2014, was dismissed from the school in 2015 after his grades dipped below the required 2.0 GPA.

Villarreal argued that he was improperly dismissed based on a known curve system that his section was not included in. According to the suit, Villarreal's section was not graded on a curve, but the other three sections of first-year classes were. 

"...The university had a policy of dismissing any student who failed to maintain a GPA of 2.0 (a C average) after the completion of the first two semesters. The university had another policy prohibiting professors from leading classroom teaching sessions during the reading period between the last day of classes and final exams," according to the opinion. 

The opinion states rumors among students claimed that a "handful of students" in a criminal law class had received pre-exam access to questions during off-campus study sessions. The university became aware of this and in March 2015, the university's dean "informed the entire first-year class by email that the matter had been investigated" and that the questions did not impact the "exam outcomes for those students or the students in other sections," according to the opinion.

Students were given the opportunity to file individual petitions. However, the opinion states that Villarreal "relied on this email’s conclusion that the review sessions had no effect on student scores in deciding not to challenge the C-plus grade he received in criminal law."

By the end of the second semester, Villarreal was informed that he was being dismissed from the law school because his GPA was 1.98, below the minimum 2.0 GPA. Villarreal at that point filed three petitions with the Academic Standards Committee requesting review of his grades.

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