This Student is not Just a Number: The Ontario Court of Appeal Recognizes Jurisdiction Over Academic Disputes in Jaffer v York University

Every student has, at one point or another, wondered what may happen if they find themselves entangled in a dispute with their educational institution.  For one York University student, that musing became reality after a dispute with the university wound up before the Ontario Court of Appeal in Jaffer v York University, 2010 ONCA 654.  The decision is of interest to university administrators province-wide, as it affirms that the Ontario Superior Court has jurisdiction over academic disputes that are grounded in contract or tort.

Office Hours Were Not Enough…

After gaining admission to York University, Ashif Jaffer and his mother approached the school to discuss accommodation measures to address his Trisomy 21 Down Syndrome disability.  No formal agreement was ever reached.  At the culmination of Jaffer’s first year, a professor offered Jaffer the opportunity to resubmit a paper and confirmed he would grant Jaffer deferred status for that course.  Assuming this meant his status as a student would be granted a deferred status, Jaffer enrolled in second year.  He was soon informed however, that he no longer qualified as a student since he had failed to obtain a D+ academic average.  Jaffer then initiated a claim against the University seeking damages, arguing a contractual breach – specifically, a breach of good faith and negligent misrepresentation.  York responded by claiming the matter was academic in nature and outside the court’s jurisdiction, and also that Jaffer had initiated a human rights claim, which fell within the exclusive jurisdiction of the Ontario Human Rights Commission.

At the Superior Court of Justice, the University brought a Rule 21 motion (of the Rules of Civil Procedure, RRO 1990, Reg 194) for an order striking out the appellant’s Statement of Claim on the basis that it failed to plead a known cause of action within the jurisdiction of the Superior Court of Justice.  Pitt J. agreed with the University’s counsel, finding that the issue was academic and fell within the university’s discretion.  He also found that Jaffer was effectively making a human rights claim, which must be heard before the provincial human rights tribunal.

Jaffer Gives The Motion Judge a Failing Grade

Dissatisfied with the motion judge’s order, Jaffer appealed to the Ontario Court of Appeal.  The main issue before the Court was “whether the Superior Court of Justice has jurisdiction to hear this action notwithstanding that it relates to a dispute about academics, and, if so, whether the pleadings disclose a reasonable cause of action based upon breach of contract or in tort.”

Karakatsanis J.A., writing for an unanimous court, affirmed the motion judge’s decision to dismiss Jaffer’s claim but also allowed Jaffer to amend his Statement of Claim. I focus on the jurisdiction and Rule 21 issues in this post.

Universities: Now, Not-So-Independent Centres of Learning

Perhaps the most interesting and relevant aspect of this case concerns the Court’s finding that academic disputes grounded in contract or tort can be heard by the Superior Court of Justice in Ontario. Karakatsanis J.A. overturned the motion judge’s finding that academic disputes on the basis of a very recent decision not available to the motion judge, Gauthier c Saint-Germain, 2010 ONCA 309 [Gauthier].

Gauthier establishes that in cases where the elements of a breach of contract or negligence are properly pleaded, the Superior Court will have jurisdiction to hear a claim even when a dispute is academic in nature and arises from the academic activities of the university.  While the University argued Gauthier was wrongly decided, Karakatsanis J.A. clearly addressed and disposed of this line of reasoning, finding that past decisions upholding the dismissal of claims relating to academic matters were done under r. 21.01(1) as the pleadings did not disclose a reasonable cause of action based upon tort, contract or negligence, not on the basis the court lacked jurisdiction.

Karakatsanis J.A. emphasized though, that the court’s jurisdiction will only extend to academic disputes with causes of action in tort or contract.  For internal academic decisions not grounded in a civil cause of action, judicial review remains the appropriate remedy.  However, the court will (and does) have jurisdiction to hear claims with a basis in tort or contract – the scholastic nature of the dispute is irrelevant.

In my opinion, I agree that this is the correct outcome.  Establishing this guideline will only allow those claims with more substance than a single student’s biased belief or personal grudge to be heard.  We must remember that students agree to be subject to their institution’s discretion in resolving academic matters upon enrolling, and only substantiated academic issues should be brought before the Superior Court.

Please Play Again: The Pleadings Contained No Reasonable Cause of Action for Breach of Contract and Negligent Misrepresentation

Having determined that the court enjoyed the necessary jurisdiction to hear the claim, Karakatsanis J.A. went on to determine whether Jaffer’s pleading contained a reasonable cause of action for breach of contract and negligent misrepresentation to allow the claim to proceed.

A claim for breach of contract must demonstrate that an implied or express term of the contract was breached.  Specifically, it must be demonstrated the University is party to the term of the contract.  Jaffer’s pleadings argued that the implied term of the contract between the two parties was that the University would accommodate Jaffer’s disability.  Finding the facts contained no basis to support this assertion, the judge dismissed the claim for breach of contract, citing the fact the appellant’s mother only contacted York after Jaffer had gained acceptance to discuss the disability.  However, Karakatsanis JA.. allowed Jaffer to amend the pleadings (if available on the facts) to include facts which allege York was aware of the disability and undertook to provide him with additional accommodations not formally required under the Ontario Human Rights Code, RSO 1990, c H.19.

Next, Jaffer claimed that York University was guilty of negligent misrepresentation as he relied on information provided by one professor as the basis for re-enrolling for second year.  Jaffer claimed his reliance on the professor’s statement was to his detriment, as he was forced out of the university and therefore delayed in entering the workforce.  The judge quickly disposed of this claim as well, emphasizing that one professor’s agreement to give him a “deferred” status in one course cannot possibly be understood to be the University’s promise to enter a student into a general, school-wide “deferred” status.

To conclude, this decision is not groundbreaking, but simply clarifies a previously muddled area of the common law.  Although previous academic cases have been heard in the courts, this decision confirms and solidifies the rule that academic disputes must be grounded in tort or contract before a claimant can pierce the veil of “academic discretion.”

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