Judge rules Valdosta State student handbook a binding contract; university appeals
August 2, 2012
by Sara Gregory
Student Press Law Center
GEORGIA — A former Georgia college student’s lawsuit against the administrator who expelled him without a hearing can continue following a state court decision last week that student handbooks can represent contracts between students and their schools.
The Fulton County Superior Court on July 24 rejected the university’s request to dismiss the lawsuit filed by Thomas Barnes against the Board of Regents of the University System of Georgia.
Barnes was attending Valdosta State University when he was “administratively withdrawn” by then-President Ronald M. Zaccari in 2007. Barnes was not given a hearing or allowed to contest the expulsion.
In his free speech and due process lawsuit, Barnes argues the university failed to follow the disciplinary procedures outlined in Valdosta State’s student handbooks, thus breaching the contract he agreed to when he enrolled at the school.
In seeking to dismiss the lawsuit, the university argued that the handbooks did not constitute a written contract between the school and Barnes. Judge Kimberly M. Esmond Adams rejected that argument, a decision that will allow the case to proceed before the trial court.
“We’re obviously pleased with the ruling,” said Bob Corn-Revere, one of the lawyers representing Barnes. “It echoes what the federal court had already said—the university policies in the student handbook represented a contract.”
The university has filed an interlocutory appeal, meaning an appeal before a case reaches its full conclusion. Because the case is still pending, the Georgia State Court of Appeals can choose whether to hear the appeal.
A university spokeswoman declined comment.
The latest ruling comes after years of legal battle between Barnes and the school.
Leading up to his expulsion in May 2007, Barnes led a campaign against a planned parking garage construction project he feared would have a negative environmental impact. Barnes distributed flyers on campus, emailed campus officials voicing his concerns and submitted a letter to the editor to the student newspaper, The Spectator.
Zaccari, a proponent of the parking garage, met and emailed with Barnes several times prior to the expulsion. Zaccari also monitored Barnes’ Facebook page, and was particularly concerned with a collage Barnes compiled that read “S.A.V.E. – Zaccari Memorial Parking Garage” and included a portrait of the president.
Describing Barnes’ behavior as “threatening,” Zaccari met five times with other administrators to discuss removing Barnes from campus. Zaccari claims he was motivated by the Virginia Tech shootings of April 2007 in which a gunman killed 33 students. Barnes was seeing counselors for anxiety and agoraphobia at the time.
Zaccari decided to expel Barnes under a University System of Georgia policy that allows individuals to be dismissed if the individual “clearly obstructs or disrupts” campus activities. A letter informing Barnes of his expulsion was slipped under his dorm room door May 7 by campus police officers.
Barnes filed a federal lawsuit against Zaccari and other administrators in January 2008, arguing that the expulsion violated his due process rights by denying him a hearing to contest the dismissal. Barnes’ lawsuit also accused school officials of breach of contract and conspiring to violate his First Amendment rights.
The trial court judge sided with the university on the free speech issue, finding no conspiracy to violate Barnes’ rights and instead ruling that Zaccari acted alone.
On the breach of contract and due process issues, the court sided with Barnes.
On appeal, the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the breach of contract finding, but upheld the rest of the trial court’s decision. On the contract claim, the court ruled that the 11th Amendment precluded Barnes from suing the Board of Regents in federal court.
Faced with the appeals court’s ruling, Barnes filed suit again, this time in Georgia state court. It is this lawsuit that the university sought to dismiss.
The case has implications for student journalists, Student Press Law Center Attorney Advocate Adam Goldstein said.
“The First Amendment still remains the baseline, but the handbook can create promises higher than that,” Goldstein said. “Especially where due process is involved, the ability to enforce those promises can really be a powerful tool to defend student rights.”
This is the first Georgia court ruling on student handbooks at public universities, although the state’s Court of Appeals has held that handbooks constitute contracts in cases involving private universities.