Judge rules that student’s lawsuit over C plus doesn’t make grade. Should courts ever get involved in grade disputes?

report cardThe Pennsylvania woman who sued her graduate school professors over a C plus lost in court last week. Northampton County Judge Emil Giordano ruled that Megan Thode failed to prove that her grade in a Lehigh University  fieldwork course was the result of any sort of discrimination. (See our earlier blog discussion of the lawsuit.)

In her quest for $1.3 million in damages, Thode argued that the low grade prevented her from advancing in her licensed professional counselor program and forced her to opt for a less prestigious degree that meant a lower income.

The Morning Call, the area newspaper covering this case, has done a great job, including this followup about the prevalence of using the courts to resolve grading disputes.

Here is an except, but look at the entire piece:

Attorneys for Lehigh noted on the first day of the trial that if Northampton County Judge Emil Giordano changed Thode’s grade, his decision would be unprecedented.

They were right, said Philadelphia education attorney J. Freedly Hunsicker, who said he is unaware of any case in which a student has successfully challenged a grade on the basis of educational malpractice alone. “A court is not equipped to determine the quality of a paper or a grade,” Hunsicker said.

The courts’ deference to teachers and professors exists at every rung of the educational ladder. But it tends to be more pronounced in cases that involve institutions of higher learning and even more so when a student is in a professional degree program such as medical or law school, Hunsicker said.

Courts are willing to give universities the benefit of the doubt, rather than intervening and risking an error that could allow a person who truly is not prepared to practice law, medicine or other life-and-death professions into those fields, Hunsicker said.

And last year, a California high school student sued his school district in federal court, alleging his chemistry teacher gave him a C+ to keep him out of the best colleges. The district agreed to raise his grade to a B, and his lawyer withdrew the lawsuit to spare the boy the harsh spotlight a trial would have attracted.

Students disappointed with their grades are more likely to get a judge’s attention when they can make a credible claim that the bad marks are the result of discrimination on the basis of gender, race, religion or some other protected class, education lawyers say.

“A courtroom isn’t the right place to contest a grade, but if a teacher discriminates and thinks they can do whatever they want, that should be challenged,” said Daniel Horowitz, the Lafayette, Calif., lawyer who represented the student with a C+ in chemistry.

–From Maureen Downey, for the AJC Get Schooled blog

62 comments Add your comment

Private Citizen

February 18th, 2013
4:28 am

Creepy to think that “top schools” (colleges) are now to be filled 100% with young people who take no risk, put school first all the time every time, and have these crispy grade transcripts. Such a rigid system is certainly not culturally diverse.

Wilbur

February 18th, 2013
5:59 am

So kids with “other” priorities and lousy resumes are culturally diverse?

Lee

February 18th, 2013
7:15 am

I’m still wondering how a single “C” can keep a person from advancing in any degree program.

I’m sure most of us have received a grade below our expectations. Never considered blowing a few thousand on a lawyer though….

John Konop

February 18th, 2013
7:28 am

Nobody won in this case. Black eye for everyone…..except the lawyers……

Progressive Humanist

February 18th, 2013
7:56 am

@Lee- A grade of “C” is failing in a graduate program. You’ve got to get an “A” or “B” to pass. I’m not sure, however, why she didn’t take the course again, possibly with another instructor. I knew one student in my doctoral program who got a “C” in statistics and then simply retook the course with another professor. The “C” didn’t help her GPA, but she got an “A” the next time and ended up graduating.

RickInGrayson

February 18th, 2013
8:08 am

Having a court of law changed a grade (college, HS) is rare. Parents pressuring teachers and professors to change grades happens all the time.

Attentive Parent/Invisible Serfs Collar

February 18th, 2013
8:15 am

There is a real problem in education and some other social science graduate programs that have, formally or informally, added Disposition to be a Social Change Agent to what it will take to gain credentials. It’s not about knowledge as many parents are discovering with Principals and Supers whose doctorates are grounded in what they agreed to do to students and teachers, regardless of parental objections.

As I have explained a million times, there is not always an effective legal remedy just because a wrong has occurred. However. we as a society would be better off if the bogus nature of too many credentials were better understood.

As I said, when a doctorate or even Masters is grounded in theories that are not true in order to get the theories into practice to gain behavioral changes in students, not appreciating that fact leaves too many people in a position to harm students and us really as well. There have been few things as dangerous in a society historically than lots of people with credentials and expectations that cannot be met.

We are in big trouble when the only people getting these Masters and Doctorates are people with no love for or much knowledge of this great country. They are routing us toward a Utopia that cannot exist and trashing everything that works because incremental change is abhorrent.

Numoney

February 18th, 2013
8:19 am

A college professor announced to his class that although the school’s grading system awarded an “A” for a score of 90 & above, he would award an “A” for 93 & above. A student earned a 92.8 & received a “B.” No rounding up here.

Cindy Lutenbacher

February 18th, 2013
8:42 am

I agree with Progressive Humanist. In many institutions, certain courses are only taught by one professor, but even if that is the situation in this case, I would wish Thode had gone to the professor to try to talk through the issue and then re-take the course. If the prof is truly looney-tunes, she could and should document that matter and take it to the university.

I also know that sometimes the established process doesn’t work. I’m not convinced that the next step should be a lawsuit, especially in this case.

Mountain Man

February 18th, 2013
9:00 am

I am sorry that this case could not have been adequately handled at the college level. However, what if this had been a black girl who claimed that she was discriminated against because she was black? What if she had been given a zero in class participation because the professor did not like her opinion? What if she had appealed to the college and they turned down her claim? Should that not go on to the courts? Especially if she could show that her other work was just as good as a white girl who got a B?

Mountain Man

February 18th, 2013
9:03 am

What would be interesting is to look at the grading practices of this particular professor and see if there is a pattern of grading down students who disagree with her.

On the other hand, this student needs to learn that the real world is not fair, that bosses do fire people who voice opinions contrary to theirs, and she should learn to keep her opinions to herself or suffer consequences. I know I don’t talk religion or politics at work because I know what can happen.

bootney farnsworth

February 18th, 2013
9:25 am

I won’t say never, but very, very, very rarely.

it there is legitimate violation of rights, than’s one thing. but because you got what you earned, even if you disagree that you earned it…

very distinct and important difference.

bootney farnsworth

February 18th, 2013
9:28 am

there is a clearly defined process in place:

1-discuss with instructor
2-take it to dept chair
3-take it to academic dean
4-take it to academic VP
5-take it to president
6-take it to regents system

its been my experience by the time you get to 4, if the school in question even remotely thinks you have a case they look to make this problem go away quietly – usually in the students favor.

bootney farnsworth

February 18th, 2013
9:30 am

@ Maureen

off topic- I hear via grapevine Ga Gwinnett is moving toward actual layoffs. I know furloughs were already on the table, what have you heard/know?

AlreadySheared

February 18th, 2013
9:30 am

@Mountain Man,
Regarding your hypothetical, I pulled this off of wikipedia –

“Hard cases make bad law” is an adage or legal maxim. Its meaning is that a particularly unpleasant case is a poor basis for a general law which would cover a wider range of less extreme cases. In other words, a general law is better drafted for the average circumstance as this will be more common.

And here’s another one – when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. There may be unjust grades passed out by abusive professors; but I think that grading should be one place that the law doesn’t go, even in that instance.

Thinking like the plaintiffs’ above is what helped make the USA arguably the most over-lawyered country on the planet.

A Conservative Voice

February 18th, 2013
9:32 am

She sounds as though she may need a little counseling herself.

living in an outdated ed system

February 18th, 2013
9:33 am

This is a waste of taxpayer dollars. The courts should NEVER get involved with grade disputes. It’s preposterous.

One grade in one course does NOT make or break an education. I know from experience! Time better spent on more critical education issues affecting Georgia’s students.

Cindy Lutenbacher

February 18th, 2013
9:34 am

Mountain Man, if I recall, you and I seldom agree. But I’m with you, here.

catlady

February 18th, 2013
9:43 am

The courts are loathe to step in with postsecondary grade matters, as the syllabus is supposed to lay out in plain view how grades are calculated. In K-12 there might be more wiggle room, but the schools are much more likely to roll over and play dead.

My mom, as a high school teacher, was entreated by the principal to change a grade. She refused; she told him if it was going to be changed, he would do it. He decided against it, as she would have carried the grievance as far as it would go. Of course, that was back around 1980.

BTW, folks, teachers do not GIVE grades. Students EARN grades.

Mountain Man

February 18th, 2013
10:00 am

“I knew one student in my doctoral program who got a “C” in statistics and then simply retook the course with another professor. The “C” didn’t help her GPA, but she got an “A” the next time and ended up graduating.”

I think this would have been the best solution here, also. However, I wonder, was this course taught by another professor? Or would she just have taken the course with the same professor? Of course, she could have transferred to another college, but then it would not have been free. I don’t know if she had a real case or not, but as I said earlier – I think the monetary damages were preposterous.

AlreadySheared

February 18th, 2013
10:09 am

@catlady,
A favorite saying: “I do not give grades, I only report them.”

Centrist

February 18th, 2013
10:22 am

How does she like having such a lost lawsuit on her resume’. Of course it will never be on the one she submits, but being so stupidly public wiped her out for many graduate schools and jobs at the git-go.

I suspect she was talked into this dead end. Good lesson for other such dolts.

Cindy Lutenbacher

February 18th, 2013
10:30 am

Thanks, Already Sheared! I’m going to borrow that saying.

Bobo

February 18th, 2013
10:39 am

What’s the point of HAVING grades if everyone should be able to determine what they think they want? Why not sue a store because milk costs $3.89 a gallon and you think it should be $2.19? Why hasn’t anyone sued a referee over a bad call? What about suing a girl who rejects you for a date? While you’re at it, why not try to sue God for letting you be born with an overbite and no singing voice?

While there are some bad professors and teachers out there, the majority of them bust their butts for their students and do the best they can do teach hard and be impartial with their decisions. The last thing they need is to be dragged in to court.

Mountain Man

February 18th, 2013
10:44 am

A favorite saying: “I do not give grades, I only report them.”

Good saying, and in 99.9% of cases – true.

However, in this particular case, it seems like the professor DID “give” the grade, since it was a subjective grade based entirely on the prof’s opinion, to give a zero in “classroom participation” even though the student “participated”, she did not “participate correctly”. Was that fully spelled out in the syllabus – how to “participate professionally and correctly”?

Anonymous in DeKalb

February 18th, 2013
10:44 am

If she were black she could enjoy a reasonable expectation of intimidating (white) school administrators into changing her grade. As it is, she succeeds in distracting attention away from the unfairness of affirmative action.

With that very topic due to come before the Supreme Court soon, it might be enlightening to dig a bit into the Thode family’s political preferences.

Ben

February 18th, 2013
10:46 am

Of course the courts should be involved, people have ceded all of their common sense to judicial and legislative fiat; why not grades and school? No child in a public or private school gets a grade below c; if they do the parents will hassle the teacher and principal. Don’t believe me? When’s the last time that u saw a D on your child’s report card?

Bernie

February 18th, 2013
10:58 am

No Surprise here! This member of the Lucky Gene Pool Club, surely had a melt down of EPIC proportions. A lot of screaming,crying,stomping of the feet and yelling ” Its NOT FAIR!”

Welcome to Life, You cannot not always get what you want. Get a grip, You are not center of the Universe!

Mountain Man

February 18th, 2013
11:16 am

The problem is that this student thought she could express her own opinions with impunity. I guess she learned that is not the case. If you express opinions contrary to what those in power wish to hear, be prepared to take the consequences. Same thing with teachers complaining to their administrators. Don’t be surprised if your contract is not renewed.

AlreadySheared

February 18th, 2013
11:21 am

@Mountain Man,
I don’t know. I don’t know if the student was merely opinionated and the professor a tyrant. Don’t know if the student was a total flake and the professor as reasonable as a human being could possibly be.

However, in any case, I do not believe that this is a case for legal pleading: the judge got it right.

skozoze

February 18th, 2013
11:21 am

Ben, there are tons of kids in my daughter’s school who end up failing classes and having to retake; not only that, a 74 is now a D where it used to be a 70. My older daughter got a D in an AP class that prevented her from earning the Hope (yes, one grade can make a difference). She missed it by 1/10 of one percent. Do I blame the teacher? Maybe he wasn’t the best teacher, but it was her lack of effort that got her the grade, and she hasn’t gotten a grade below a B since that class in her sophomore year in high school. She’ll be earning the Hope this year (her freshman year in college where she made the Dean’s List).

Prof

February 18th, 2013
11:33 am

You folks posting here need to go back and read the previous blog on this subject from Feb. 13. Maureen must have assumed you’d know the background. This student received a zero for Class Participation in a graduate class in Counseling Psychology, which dropped her overall grade to a C+ (not allowed in graduate classes), so she dropped out of the program. Then she sued over her Class Participation grade (a cool $1.3 million for the life-earnings she didn’t get as a counselor). Her father is a faculty member there in a different department.

I posted this on that earlier blog on Feb. 14, 3:11 pm:

“More on her classroom behavior, from lehighvalleylive.com. Hamburg is the teacher’s lawyer. Thode was training to be a psychological counselor.

‘Megan Thode had outbursts in class in which she asked for aspirin for a headache and recalled how someone once called another professor a pompous ass. Once she burst into tears. Thode was not participating in the therapy course appropriately, Eckhardt said, and Eckhardt even provided her a letter advising her on steps she needed to take.

Instead of taking positive steps and addressing the matters she brought up, Thode became emotionally unstable when confronted, Eckhardt said. Thode said she needed to speak with her father and possibly seek legal counsel.

“I need to get a lawyer,” Eckhardt said, quoting Megan Thode.

Eckhardt also dismissed the claims of discrimination over Thode’s opinions on gay marriage. While she believes marriage should be between a man and a woman, Eckhardt testified she would not allow her personal stance to cloud her professional judgement. Eckhardt also said her sister is gay and would be her matron of honor at her wedding if asked.

Hamburg also cast Stephen Thode in negative light, suggesting he became involved as a way to exact revenge on the university for not promoting him to a full professor. He also noted Thode’s two children received free college education as part of the compensation provided to Lehigh University staff and faculty members.’

I would say that the Judge’s decision was exactly right.

old teach

February 18th, 2013
12:45 pm

Much thanks, Prof, for the information. It really clears up lots of questions about the case!

bootney farnsworth

February 18th, 2013
1:00 pm

seems to me Megan needs to be IN psychotherapy instead of GIVING psychotherapy.

self obsessed drama queen

Cindy Lutenbacher

February 18th, 2013
1:15 pm

Thanks, Prof. I missed the earlier blog post.

williebkind

February 18th, 2013
1:16 pm

So grades are subjective to the professor’s opinion and a C by one professor could be a B+ by another professor. Yepper, college is the maker of genius.

Wondering

February 18th, 2013
1:32 pm

I hate to see grades end up in court, and in the abscense of any other issue such as discrimination, the courts should and do stay out of these issues. However, it is happening with more frequency, and while a court case is pending, the involved teacher may find it hard to conduct financial business such as a loan for purchasing a house or a car. The possibility creditors may frown on the pending suit and decline is real. I know of two such situations in California.

I often disagreed with my teachers. The secret is to use the disagreement as a discussion point and develop a relationship with the teacher. Most teachers don’t mind a thoughtful disagreement carried on in a respectful manner. Usually the grade didn’t change, but I did learn how to work with people I disagree with. It usually starts with treating them with respect.

William Casey

February 18th, 2013
1:40 pm

I agree with the judge’s ruling but still believe that there is something fishy about awarding a “zero” for participation. Of course, Thode could possibly have been rude and obnoxious all the time, not something one would like to see in a prospective counselor. I guess you had to be there.

Just Sayin

February 18th, 2013
2:12 pm

Even though it seems crazy to get a zero for participation, I can see why. In most professional jobs, you can and in most cases will be fired for unprofessional behavior. If she indeed was having outburst and crying in class, I can see why she would get a zero for participation. It seems that she was in a professional program acting anything but. Here’s the kicker. She has now probably screwed herself with a lot of employers. Would you pick a candidate that will more than likely sue if she gets a bad review or doesn’t get the promotion. Though employers run this risk with any applicant. She has shown what she is willing to do.

Prof

February 18th, 2013
2:14 pm

Megan Thode was in graduate training to be a psychological counselor, taking an Internship course in Therapy. Her classroom behavior demonstrated that she would be a poor one and probably could use some counseling herself. She could damage future clients. The zero for participation was probably used as a way to remove her when her other test grades didn’t justify it….and after all, “participation” was listed on the class syllabus as being worth 25%. The professor’s letter should have been a warning to Thode that things were not going to end well for her in that class.

Ole Guy

February 18th, 2013
2:23 pm

YOUGOTTABE_HITINME!

It is what it is…I have discussed, with professors, an assigned grade vs what I felt was a deserved grade. Sometimes, I prevailed; sometimes, I accepted the grade. But to whine, piss an’ moan, and waste court time is nothing short of pure BS and an indictment of a generation which cannot/will not accept life for what it can be…and for what it is not (always); life’s reality, despite the concept of fairness and justice for all, can sometimes/often be bitter, while the reality remains as always…life’s not always fair. The “trick”…the true sign of “manhood” (gender neutral) is the willingness to face life, with all it’s crap and injustice, get up after being knocked on your six, get back into the fight, and ultimately prevail.

No matter the “stakes”…admission to the best colleges and universities, etc, these people will, forever, be losers.

Prof

February 18th, 2013
3:01 pm

@ Ole Guy. For once, we agree.

KIM

February 18th, 2013
3:08 pm

Absolutely NO! Courts should not be involved with grades any more than it should be involved in employee evaluations. We need to ensure our courts are not paralyzed by handling frivolous cases anyway…tort reform is badly needed! We definitely do not need to hand tie them with this.

Maude

February 18th, 2013
3:59 pm

If the courts were to get into grade changing there would more lawsuits than the court system could handle. Every parent and thier brillant offspring would expect every low grade changed. This would just be another way to give people something without working for it. I can see lawsuits for students as young as kindergarten. Parents already fuss about grades. In December a student in my kindergarten class recieved a “U” or “F” on a project that was graded by rubric provided by the oounty, the parent went to the principal and said that I hit their child. I never touched the child and the other students said I did not. This was all because of the grade. This could have been a rea mess for me.

Home-tutoring parent

February 18th, 2013
4:23 pm

Ms. Thode failed a course. How many of us have not failed at something? If we are smart, we take home lessons Maybe I’m in the wrong field. There are other fields in which I do better. Maybe I COULD DO THIS, but I’M NOT WORKING HARD ENOUGH.

I remember transferring from a Lehigh-level university mid-sophomore year, to Berkeley. This was back in the quarte-calendar days I had just missed an A in first-quarter organic chem,and was cocky, arriving at Berkeley, enrolling in Q2 organic chem. I was crushed. I only got a “D” because I was a lab wizard, and my lab grades lifted my lecture-test “F’s”. In Q3 O Chem I got a strong B, then I was eligible to retake Q2 O Chem, in my 3rd year, A.

It just took me time to figure out how to study long and hard hours.

I have a son who crumped out on his math PhD hopes: he did well enough on his quals to earn a master’s without having to write a thesis, and passed all but one test required to continue in the PhD program.

You reach your limits in one venue, the door is closed. You choose to try to force the door to open, or use your energy in other realms.

For the instant case, Ms. Thode received a 0 for class participation. Prof knows how wonderful it is to have a student who “groks on what I am trying to teach.” Ms Thode didn’t do that. There’s a line between a student’s challenging a instructor, vs. a student’s rejecting what the instructor says. For example, I loved to hear instructors tell me, “I never thought about that before,” and they invited me to lunch, that they treated me to, for further discussions. Or when they invited me to have talks in their offices after regular office hours.

Mountain Man

February 18th, 2013
4:24 pm

So if all the teachers here are OK with a professor using a subjective opinion to make a pass/no pass decision, then they should be fine with administrators using subjective “classroom observations” as evaluations as to whether or not to renew contracts.

Mountain Man

February 18th, 2013
4:26 pm

It sounds like the court decided there was no clear evidence of discrimination, so it left the grade question up to the college.

Home-tutoring parent

February 18th, 2013
4:44 pm

Subjective opinions happen. Really, the only objective evaluations are in math, physics and chemistry.

Home-tutoring parent

February 18th, 2013
4:58 pm

I had a blast in college. Waay too much of a blast. On transferring from a Lehigh U-grade school to the University of California-Berkeley, I learned, “You aren’t that good,” actually, I was lousy. But, confronted with failure in O Chem, I decided to figure things out, as per my wont.

In retrospect, I may have been able to make PBK invite me in, 3.91 junior year, 3.88 senior year, “What do you people want?” I met this U Wisconsin graduate, he made PBK, a not-that-smart-but-cunning weasel.

Home-tutoring parent

February 18th, 2013
5:27 pm

These things are hard. My youngest son passed his preliminary exams high enough to earn a master’s degree without having to write a thesis. But not high enough to be admitted to the PhD program.

My other kid had to write a thesis for his master’s degree.

Write what you know.

I think Google guys hava a smart idea: open up mankind’s knowledge base, zip copyright law, if it is is in libraries, let everyone wherever they live, examine it. If the information is in the Library of Congress, open to people who live in D.C., and people who can afford to travel there, open it up to everyone.

Prof, I lived in the stacks, at UCB, UCSF, UCSD, Scripps IO, Francis Countway, UC Irvine, UCLA, WOW!

I was able to garner my own stacks desk. as an undergraduate in one of the best university libraries in the world. I loved living in the stacks.