should I sue?
November 23, 2009 6:27 PM   Subscribe

Should I sue?

You are not a lawyer, and if you are, you aren't my lawyer. I've already got a lawyer, so I'm set on that score. What I'm trying to figure out is, from an emotional, spiritual, and economic perspective, will suing be worth it?

Not long ago I was dismissed from an academic program in which I have already invested a tremendous amount of time, energy and money. I feel that my dismissal was unjust, and not only do my fellow students agree with me, but instructors and other program staff have also expressed that they believe it was unjust. My school has a grievance process, but I believe this process has been subverted on multiple levels in such a way as to make it meaningless - my lawyer more or less agrees.

Based on some initial legal research, I believe that I have a case - if not about my actual dismissal - then at the least about the grievance process. However, I've always been very against suing as a way of solving problems. Still, I really think something should happen at my school to make changes in order to make things more fair, and I'm coming to believe that a law suit maybe the only way to make this happen. Also, I have some pretty major costs I have to recoup because of this.

So I'm hoping to talk to other people who have sued - in any context - to help me get a sense of whether this process might be, well, worth it. Did you sue? Are you glad you did?

posted by anonymous to Law & Government (17 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
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posted by Rocket26 at 6:41 PM on November 23, 2009

I am a deeply, deeply, vindictive person. Just wanted to get that out of the way. I don't apologize for it, but I figure you should know where I'm coming from.

Having said that, suing someone ($20K breach of contract) and making it clear to them that I was fully prepared to pursue them, even to the point of spending more money than they owed me (just for the sake of denying them that amount), was wildly successful. I spent about $5K on lawyer fees, and recovered the full $20K. Rather than the $5K they were offering prior to my launching the suit.

Note: I actually had to sue, and hire a litigator (not just a lawyer). About three months after I filed, my litigator called to say we'd won (they caved before it went to trial; apparently it took a while for them to realize I was serious). A month after that, I had my $15K (post-fees). In my book, that's a raging success.

I'd do it again, but remember, I'm vindictive. I'm the sort of person that will cripple myself just to hurt you, and I'll spend the rest of my life feeling good about it.
posted by aramaic at 6:44 PM on November 23, 2009 [4 favorites]

I think you'll feel worse if you don't sue. If you can nail the bastards to the floor, you'll probably be helping other people not only yourself. But if you just let it slide, you'll probably regret it later and maybe for ever. Closure is always good.
posted by anadem at 7:01 PM on November 23, 2009

IANAL, but I know a number of lawyers and people who've sued large institutions. While I myself haven't been involved in said suits, I can say this much about my observations of the process as an outsider:

I think in part the answer to your "should I sue?" question depends on what it is you want to get out of the process. Your money back? Damages? Do you want to fix your school's grievance process? Do you want to get back into your program?

Pretty obviously (I hope!), that last one is never going to happen. Nor should you be looking to go back, it wouldn't be much good for you.

Assuming you have a viable case (and from what you/your lawyer say, it sounds like you do), the likely outcome of the suit is that it will be settled. You're not going to fix the grievance process without winning a suit, and unless you're independently wealthy, the school has much deeper pockets than you, and they're simply going to be able to outspend you. Your goal should be to come off as sufficiently aggressive that it's more fiscally responsible for them to pay you to go away (settle) rather than pay lawyers to keep fighting. You may not even be able to recoup the totality of the money you've paid your academic program, either... that largely depends on the strength of your case. And, obviously, your lawyer will get a cut.
posted by axiom at 7:06 PM on November 23, 2009

While aramaic tells a nice story, most people involved in lawsuits (especially against universities, who have large amounts of money and lots of incentive to NOT settle with disgruntled students) are not so lucky. Most settlements involve both parties compromising their positions - i.e. nobody leaves truly happy. And that's just the cases that actually settle. Your university is much more interested in discouraging other students from suing it than it is in making you go away.

As for the practicality of your case, you don't give us any facts. First off, if you are dealing with a private university, your main theory of recourse is breach of contract. And the university wrote the contract, so it's going to be a pretty uphill battle. If you are dealing with a government-run university, you also have a host of constitutional-type theories at your disposal. However, that only applies if the facts truly support your situation. If you're not talking about discrimination (i.e. age, sex, race, religion, etc) or a clear statutory violation (i.e. ADA), you're back to breach of contract above.

The collateral effects of filing a lawsuit could be very significant for you. First and foremost, nothing in the court systems ever happens quickly. Think a minimum of one to two years, and you won't be disappointed. Sure, settlements can happen before that, but this isn't a John Grisham novel. Second, and this may be the biggest collateral damage for you, is that this is going to be public forever. If you are thinking about a career in academia, then every university that you apply to is going to find out about it eventually. Maybe even your students as well. Even if a settlement is confidential, the court file will be public, and media attention is always a possibility. You're not suing some little car dealership, you're suing the government (or a private club of academics sitting on a huge endowment).

In short, you should not sue unless you have a clear victory and no other recourse. You would be much better off to find a way to get on with your studies and make the best of it. Good luck, whatever your choice.
posted by MrZero at 7:09 PM on November 23, 2009 [1 favorite]

I won't give you advice on this, except to say that suing academic institutions, especially for grievance violations by students/professors, is a very specialized little niche practice. Make sure that your lawyer has experience in this area -- and preferably experience litigating against this same institution. A good lawyer should also be able and willing to give you a picture of how the case might unfold and the emotional/spiritual toll. I would particularly recommend that you ask your lawyer whether your goals (such as "making a change to the institution") are something that you might get out of suing.
posted by yarly at 7:10 PM on November 23, 2009 [3 favorites]

I've done something similar. It was emotionally exhaustive, draining, and spiritually horrible in a lot of ways. The whole thing could have probably been avoided with a sincere apology and an honest conversation. They weren't up for that, so instead it caused a massive amount of anxiety... but it was very lucrative. YMMV, obviously.
posted by ohyouknow at 7:29 PM on November 23, 2009

My experience is working with crime victims, not civil litigants. My observation was that the legal process was surprisingly unsatisfying. What people really wanted was to go back to the situation before the event occured. Of course, that cannot happen.

My advice would be to give a lot of thought to your expectations. If you think this is going to make your personal situation all better, then you're going to be disappointed. If you win, the only thing you'll get is money - not the time or energy you invested in your schooling.
posted by 26.2 at 7:34 PM on November 23, 2009

not only do my fellow students agree with me, but instructors and other program staff have also expressed that they believe it was unjust.

Maybe they feel really bad for you and think it's "not fair", but would they be willing to testify in court that you are owed damages? That can be a pretty huge leap.
posted by hermitosis at 8:09 PM on November 23, 2009 [1 favorite]

Remember that by punishing them for unjust behavior, they might think twice before doing it again to someone else.
posted by wackybrit at 9:32 PM on November 23, 2009

Remember that by punishing them for unjust behavior, they might think twice before doing it again to someone else.

Who is "they" in this regard? The asshole tat fired OP? The person that started the slander? The department? College? University? Legal affairs dept? Sometimes lawsuits change institutional behavior, sometimes they just make money for lawyers and take many, many years.

Smite-your-enemies is tempting but remember you're not dealing with a person here, you're dealing with anamorphous quasi-legal-governmental agency.

IRFH has something to say on the matter too..
posted by lalochezia at 9:54 PM on November 23, 2009

I believe you should put this question, exactly as you wrote it here, to your lawyer. He or she is going to be the professional who has the knowledge of local law combined with the full knowledge of the facts. I do this type of law and knowing how complex it is cannot be explained here. As always, balance risk to reward.
posted by Ironmouth at 10:34 PM on November 23, 2009

Not advising you to sue, but it might help to rethink this basic idea: I've always been very against suing as a way of solving problems. As written, that idea is so simplistic as to be completely unhelpful.

Perhaps you could reframe it as something more like, "I believe lawsuits should be a last resort, used only when more diplomatic methods fail," or "It saddens me when I see lawsuits misused to achieve unjust ends." Lawsuits are sometimes appropriate. If you can clarify your thoughts about when they are and aren't, you'll have a better idea of where you stand in this situation.
posted by jon1270 at 3:35 AM on November 24, 2009

The basics of a lawsuit is that someone has caused you damage by breaching their contract with you. Whether the contract is written, implied or implicit (that's not the right word, but what I mean is that when you buy food from someone, it is never stated or implied that they shouldn't dump bleach in the mashed potatoes. Everyone knows it.) Further, you have to show (as the person doing the suing, you are the "prosecutor" and have the duty to show evidence that they failed their responsibility) that they should have known they were acting wrong and could have prevented it by changing their behavior. So in this case, you have to find a way to prove that they did not adhere to their policies, and that you did. Good luck.
posted by gjc at 3:44 AM on November 24, 2009

"I've always been very against suing as a way of solving problems."

I'm one of those people also, and I think you should stick with this way of doing things.

Besides, I think despite your belief that the grievance process having been subverted, you should at least try to go through with it, so that if you do decide to sue, at least you can say you tried to do things the right way. And before you take things to court, but after you do the grievance thing, you could always threaten to sue, which might be just as effective as the actual suing, without lawyers getting rich off of the whole thing.
posted by Effigy2000 at 3:47 AM on November 24, 2009

It might well be beneficial to exhaust the grievance system that the school has in place before filing suit. Certainly talk to a lawyer before or during this, but this should keep the school from raising the issue in court, "Your honor, we have a perfectly good system in which the student could have appealed the decision, but opted from doing. Thus, they're here in bad faith, rather than being sincere about wanting to contest the decision." Then you'd have to prove that the grievance system is so poorly designed that it was a reasonable choice not to use it. At worse, you expose something damning about yourself in the process (in which case, things aren't looking to great for you anyways). At best, it's a headache that's out of the way. That's my perspective anyway. Get a lawyer's, though, it's the one that counts the most.
posted by Atreides at 6:31 AM on November 24, 2009

Who is "they" in this regard? The asshole tat fired OP? The person that started the slander? The department? College? University? Legal affairs dept? Sometimes lawsuits change institutional behavior, sometimes they just make money for lawyers and take many, many years.

In this case, I don't think that question matters. It's been specified that the grievances process for dealing with situations like this is inadequate and broken. Even if the institution has little to learn from the actual dismissal incident, a swift kick up the ass might help it bring its policies for dealing with grievances into line.
posted by wackybrit at 8:07 AM on November 24, 2009

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