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Media Alerts - Professional Massage Training Center, Inc. v. Accreditation Alliance of Career Schools and Colleges -- Fourth Circuit
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April 9, 2015
  Professional Massage Training Center, Inc. v. Accreditation Alliance of Career Schools and Colleges -- Fourth Circuit
Headline: Where Credit Is Due: Quasi-Public Accreditation Agencies Must Be Given Deference

Area of Law: Administrative Law, Civil Procedure

Issue Presented: Whether the district court applied the proper standard of review when it overturned AACSC's decision not to renew PMTC's accreditation.

Brief Summary: Professional Massage Training Center, Incorporated ("PMTC") is a for-profit massage therapy school. Accreditation Alliance of Career Schools and Colleges ("AACSC") is a non-profit organization that accredits over 750 private institutions of higher learning that offer career-oriented programs. A school must be accredited to access federal student aid funding. AACSC accredited PMTC in 2000, but refused to re-accredit the school in 2011. PMTC sued in federal district court claiming, inter alia, that AACSC violated PMTC's common law due process rights. The district court agreed. After a four-day bench trial, the court awarded PMTC $400,000 in damages and ordered AACSC to accredit PMTC. AACSC appealed to the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit.

On appeal, AACSC argued that the district court applied an improper standard of review of its decision not to re-accredit PMTC. The Fourth Circuit agreed, finding the district court improperly applied a de novo standard of review. The court stated that accreditation agencies function in a "quasi-public" capacity on behalf of the Secretary of Education. Accreditation agencies have wide-ranging expertise in highly specialized fields, which federal courts lack. Therefore courts must give deference to accreditation agencies in the same way they would an administrative agency. A federal court must not conduct a de novo review or substitute its judgment for that of the agency when examining an agency's decision. Nevertheless, accreditation agencies have a common law due process duty to employ "fair procedures when making decisions affecting their members." When hearing a common law due process claim against an accreditation agency, federal courts should focus on whether the agency's "internal rules provided a fair and impartial procedure" and whether the agency followed those rules when making its decision.

The Fourth Circuit found the district court went beyond examining procedural fairness and instead conducted a de novo review, supplanting AACSC's judgment and discretion with its own. When examined under the appropriate deferential standard, AACSC's decision did not violate PMTC's common law due process rights. AACSC's standards for accreditation were sufficiently clear for PMTC to understand the standards with which it must comply. Furthermore, AACSC repeatedly told PMTC how to become compliant and gave PMTC almost two years to do so before deciding to revoke accreditation.

Accordingly, the Fourth Circuit reversed the district court and remanded with instructions to find for AACSC and dismiss the case. The Fourth Circuit also affirmed the district court's dismissal of PMTC's other, non-common law due process claims.

To read the full text of this opinion, please click here.

Panel: Judges Wilkinson, Agee, and Harris.

Argument Date: 01/28/2015

Date of Issued Opinion: 03/24/15

Docket Number: Nos. 14-1086 and 14-1136

Decided: Affirmed in part, reversed in part, and remanded with instructions by published opinion.

Case Alert Author: Roy Lyford-Pike, Univ. of Maryland Carey School of Law

Counsel: ARGUED: Craig C. Martin, Michael Anthony Scodro, JENNER & BLOCK, LLP, Chicago, Illinois, for Appellant/Cross-Appellee. Matthew Lorn Hoppock, DUNN & DAVISON LLC, Kansas City, Missouri, for Appellee/Cross-Appellant. ON BRIEF: Sarah A. Palmer, JENNER & BLOCK, LLP, Chicago, Illinois, for Appellant/Cross-Appellee. Ronald L. Holt, Julie G. Gibson, DUNN & DAVISON LLC, Kansas City, Missouri, for Appellee/Cross-Appellant. Mary E. Kohart, Dean R. Phillips, Gregory S. Voshell, Michelle L. Modery, ELLIOTT GREENLEAF & SIEDZIKOWSKI, P.C., Blue Bell, Pennsylvania; Kenneth J. Ingram, Thomas Mugavero, WHITEFORD TAYLOR PRESTON, LLP, Washington, D.C.; Ada Meloy, AMERICAN COUNCIL ON EDUCATION, Washington, D.C., for Amici Accreditation Review Commission on Education for the Physician Assistant, Accreditation Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine, Accreditation Council for Pharmacy Education, Accrediting Bureau of Health Education Schools, Incorporated, Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges-Western Association of Schools and Colleges, Accrediting Council for Continuing Education & Training, Accrediting Council for Independent Schools and Colleges, American Council on Education, Association of Specialized and Professional Accreditors, Association of Technology, Management, and Applied Engineering, Commission on Institutions of Higher Education of the New England Association of Schools and Colleges, Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related
Educational Programs, Council for Higher Education Accreditation, Council for Podiatric Medication Education, Council on Education for Public Health, Council on Occupational Education, Distance Education and Training Council, Higher Learning Commission, The Middle States Commission on Higher Education, National Architectural Accrediting Board, Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges, and Western Association of Schools and Colleges Senior College Commission. Shannen W. Coffin, Jeffrey M. Theodore, STEPTOE & JOHNSON LLP, Washington, D.C., for Amici American Council of Trustees and Alumni, Judicial Education Project, and The John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy.

Author of Opinion: Judge Wilkinson

Case Alert Circuit Supervisor: Professor Renée Hutchins

    Posted By: Renee Hutchins @ 04/09/2015 01:05 PM     4th Circuit  

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