10 College Students Who Successfully Sued Their Own School

It is common for colleges to refer to their community of students and alumni as “family.” And like any family, especially one with thousands of members, a squabble here and there is inevitable. Of course, if there is anything college officials like less than being sued by a student, it’s being sued and losing. Although schools win most of the lawsuits brought by students, some college kids have sought their justice in court and emerged victorious. Here are 10 students who had strong cases and good lawyers.

  1. Micah Fialka-Feldman, Oakland University

    “It’s a great opportunity, this ruling, for any kids to now dream they can go to college and have the full college life.” So said Oakland University student Micah Fialka-Feldman upon hearing he had won his 2009 suit against the school to allow him to live on campus. Because of his mild cognitive disability, Fialka-Feldman had been a non-degree student, a fact the school claimed allowed them to bar him from living in a dorm. Before he had had to take a two-hour bus ride to school and felt like he was missing out on the college experience. Supporters called him a “hero” and “pioneer” for the rights of people with disabilities. The school’s appeal was thrown out, and Micah Fialka-Feldman enjoyed his last semester in an OU dorm room.

  2. Jennifer Gratz, University of Michigan

    Gratz v. Bollinger was a landmark college case decided in 2003. Jennifer Gratz had been denied admission to the University of Michigan in 1995, despite a 3.8 GPA. The school admitted that it used race as a factor in admissions in order to promote diversity. Gratz moved on to another school but sued UM, and the case went all the way to the Supreme Court. The judges found that race may be considered in admissions in support of campus diversity, but that it must only be used narrowly, which Michigan had failed to do.

  3. Julie Farris, Azusa Pacific University

    In a tragic accident in February 2008, Azusa Pacific student Julie Farris was hit by a school-funded trolley while biking on campus and left with permanent brain damage. The suit filed on her behalf named APU, the trolley driver, and the City of Azusa as defendants. Her lawyers argued that the times students had to shuttle between classes coincided with the worst traffic times, and the scene of the accident is a notoriously dangerous intersection. The school was found to have been negligent in providing safety features like traffic signals. Farris was awarded $1.5 million in late 2010.

  4. Kyra Alejandro, Palm Beach State College

    Kyra Alejandro’s Pomeranian, the 8-pound Ambrosius, helps her prevent anxiety attacks by licking or nipping her when she senses her losing control of her emotions. Pretty amazing, right? Officials at Palm Beach State were not impressed. They blocked Alejandro from bringing her to class and even had security guards escort her off campus! Unsurprisingly, Alejandro sued and the school settled for $100,000 and some much-needed sensitivity classes for employees. Alejandro and Ambrosius transferred to Florida Atlantic University in June 2011.

  5. Derek Tolbert, Queens College

    The 1994 discrimination case brought by Derek Tolbert against Queens College garnered more attention that it might have on its own, thanks to the appeal being heard by one Judge Sonia Sotomayor. Tolbert had failed his final exam for a master’s in media studies. He claimed the grading professors discriminated against him because he is black, and passed fellow Chinese students by “cutting them slack.” Back and forth the case went: a jury awarded Tolbert $50,000, the judge reversed it, and the appeals court (with Sotomayor) reversed him, saying the professors broke the law by considering ethnicity in their grading.

  6. Austin Wells, University of Memphis

    With graduation 48 hours away, Memphis graphic arts student Austin Wells stumbled into an open elevator shaft at The Second Floor Contemporary Gallery and plummeted 15 feet. The serious brain injury he now suffers from makes any tasks, especially art projects, complicated tasks for him. Wells’ mother sued the school and the gallery owner on his behalf, each of whom pointed the finger at the other. In October 2011, a jury awarded Wells $4.1 million, 65% of the blame to the school for not adequately supervising the event, and 30% to the gallery owner.

  7. Doyle Byrnes, Johnson County Community College

    There was a good lesson for students in this case: before you post something to Facebook, ask yourself, ‘Could this get me kicked out of school?’ When nursing student Doyle Byrnes posted a photo of herself posing by a placenta, her instructor merely said to her and her friends, “Oh, you girls.” The director of nursing, however, had something else to say: “You’re expelled.” Byrnes sued the school and won, a Kansas district court judge saying the school had denied her due process. Byrnes was allowed to enroll again in the fall 2011 semester, but she got married and moved to Virginia instead.

  8. Mostafa Tabatabainejad, UCLA

    Before Andrew Meyer gave the world “Don’t tase me, bro,” UCLA student Mostafa Tabatabainejad found himself on the receiving end of a stun gun in a campus library. Tabatabainejad refused to give ID when asked and refused to leave when ordered. His subsequent, repeated tasering by police as he shouted about the Patriot Act was captured on video by fellow students. He sued UCLA, and in 2009 the school announced it had settled with him for $220,000 and was allowing Tabatabainejad to return to school and finish his degree.

  9. “J.K.,” Arizona State University

    The sad story of a raped Arizona State student ended with an unprecedented settlement in 2009. “J.K.” had sued the school, the board of regents, football coach Dirk Koetter, and player Darnel Henderson, who allegedly committed the crime in 2004. She maintained the school had put her in a dangerous position by letting Henderson return to campus after grabbing women and talking about “putting them in their place.” Although the school claimed no responsibility for the attack, they agreed to pay J.K. $850,000 and appoint a safety officer for handling sexual assault complaints.

  10. Geisy Arruda, Bandeirante University

    In Brazil, a country known for some racy dresses, you wouldn’t think a run-of-the-mill mini-dress would cause such a stir. But in October 2010, when student Geisy Arruda wore this dress to Bandeirante University, the whole place went nuts. A crowd of guys followed her around, students called her a whore, and police had to escort her out. After the school expelled her for “inadequate clothing,” she sued and won $20,000 in compensation. And she became a celebrity in Brazil, going on reality TV and dancing in Carnival parades.

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