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Meyer v. Community College of Beaver County

February 11, 2009

DAVID J. MEYER, DALLAS BERRY, CHARLES J. BROWN, JEREMY LEE FOX, MARTIN GORECKI, ANTHONY J. HOLLIBAUGH, LISA L. SALYERS, ROCHELL SYKES, JOSEPH W. VUCICK, DAVID L. WIGLEY, DENNIS W. WOODLEY, CHRIS MACK AND TAMMY MUSLO
v.
COMMUNITY COLLEGE OF BEAVER COUNTY, APPELLANT



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Judge Robert Simpson

Argued: October 15, 2008

BEFORE: HONORABLE BONNIE BRIGANCE LEADBETTER, President Judge, HONORABLE BERNARD L. McGINLEY, Judge, HONORABLE DORIS A. SMITH-RIBNER, Judge, HONORABLE DAN PELLEGRINI, Judge, HONORABLE ROBERT SIMPSON, Judge, HONORABLE MARY HANNAH LEAVITT, Judge, HONORABLE JOHNNY J. BUTLER, Judge.

OPINION

In this interlocutory appeal by permission, we consider the extent to which a community college, a local agency, may be liable under the Unfair Trade Practices and Consumer Protection Law (CPL)*fn1 for statutory damages, including possible treble damages.

In particular, the Community College of Beaver County (the College) appeals an order of the Court of Common Pleas of Beaver County (trial court) denying its motion for partial summary judgment. A group of former students (Plaintiffs)*fn2 enrolled in the College's police technology program (the Academy) during the 2001-02 academic year, brought a civil action against the College after the Academy lost its school certification under the Municipal Police Officers Education and Training Act (Training Act), 53 Pa. C.S. §§2161-70, informally known as "Act 120." In their amended complaint Plaintiffs allege breach of contract and breach of warranty, and various unfair or deceptive acts as defined in the CPL.

I.

In May 2002, before Plaintiffs completed the Academy's course of study, the Pennsylvania Municipal Police Officers' Education and Training Commission (Training Commission) suspended the Academy's Act 120 certification. The Training Commission based the suspension on numerous violations, including the Academy's failure to accurately document student examination scores and the failure of Academy instructors to be properly certified to teach various classes. The Training Commission officially revoked the Academy's Act 120 certification in August 2002.

Thereafter, Plaintiffs filed a complaint against the College that alleged as follows. In its 2000-01*fn3 course catalog, the College expressly represented the Academy to be a Training Commission certified course of study. These express representations were made to induce, and did induce, Plaintiffs to enroll in the Academy. Plaintiffs paid tuition, attended the required courses and took examinations.

However, due to numerous violations of the Training Act and its regulations,*fn4 the Training Commission ultimately revoked the Academy's certification. As a result, the Training Commission disallowed most of the credits Plaintiffs earned at the Academy. Consequently, Plaintiffs must repeat virtually all of the Act 120 course requirements at another police academy and pay tuition.

In odd-numbered counts of their amended complaint titled "Breach of Contract and Warranty," each Plaintiff alleged the College breached contractual warranties.*fn5 Alleged damages included loss of tuition; loss of income; and loss of job opportunities and the income associated therewith.

In even-numbered counts of their amended complaint titled "Consumer Protection Law," each Plaintiff alleged the purchase of education services constituted a transaction in "trade" or "commerce" as defined in Section 2(3) of the CPL and the College is a "person" as defined in Section 2(2) of the CPL. Plaintiffs further alleged the College engaged in unfair or deceptive conduct as defined in Sections 2(4)(ii), (iii), (v), (vii), (xiv) and (xxi) of the CPL*fn6 in violation of Section 3 of the CPL, 73 P.S. §201-3 (unfair methods of competition and unfair or deceptive acts or practices as defined in Section 2(4) of the CPL declared unlawful).*fn7 Plaintiffs alleged substantial economic losses as a result of the College's violations of the CPL. They also sought treble damages and an award of costs and attorney fees under Section 9.2 of the CPL.*fn8

After the close of pleadings*fn9 and discovery, the College filed a motion for partial summary judgment requesting judgment on Plaintiffs' CPL and breach of warranty claims. As to the breach of warranty claims, the College argued that Plaintiffs failed to offer sufficient proof to support their claims. Relevant to this appeal, the College argued the CPL does not apply to community colleges and, as a local agency, a community college is immune from CPL claims under 42 Pa. C.S. §8541.

Ultimately, the trial court denied the College's motion for partial summary judgment. The trial court rejected the College's assertion the CPL does not apply to community colleges. It further rejected the College's immunity defense on the basis that some of Plaintiffs' CPL claims sound in contract, not in tort.

The trial court also cited several cases in support of its decision. See Cavaliere v. Duff's Business Institute, 605 A.2d 397 (Pa. Super. 1992) (breach of contract action may lie in case where school falsely asserts it is accredited or licensed to give a certain degree); Swartley v. Hoffner, 734 A.2d 915 (Pa. Super. 1999) (relationship between private college and student is contractual in nature; student may bring cause of action for breach of contract where college ignores or violates written contract); Beljan v. Bucks County Cmty. Coll., 11 Pa. D.&C.3d 786 (C.P. Bucks 1979) (plaintiff, a nursing student, failed to set forth a cause of action against a community college for breach of contract based on the school's alleged failure to implement rules and regulations promulgated by the State Board of Nursing Examiners).*fn10 The trial court explained:

The common denominator of all these cases is the allegation that the Defendant-school committed a breach of any of the terms and ...


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