State appeals court says former UNC athletes can’t pursue paper-classes lawsuit

Another lawsuit spawned by UNC-Chapel Hill’s “paper classes” scandal has come up short, this time at the hands of the N.C. Court of Appeals.

Ruling against former football player James Arnold and former women’s basketball player Leah Metcalf, a panel from the state’s second-highest court said their case looks like an attempt by their attorneys to repackage “educational malpractice claims [that] are not recognized under North Carolina law.”

Moreover, their claims of long-term career damage “are too conjectural and uncertain” to justify allowing the lawsuit to continue, Judge Wanda Bryant said in an opinion joined by fellow Judges Robert N. Hunter Jr. and Lucy Inman.

Tuesday’s ruling was the latest in a string of court losses suffered by former UNC athletes who’ve sought compensation from the university over the long-running academic fraud that benefited athletes and other students.

It involved phony classes in the former Department of African and Afro-American Studies that allowed students to get an easy grade in return for turning in one relatively short paper for the semester. Usually a department secretary — not a faculty member authorized to pass judgment on students’ academic work — graded the papers, sometimes with knowledge of what mark would preserve its author’s eligibility to take the field or retain a scholarship.

Like others before it, the Arnold/Metcalf lawsuit contends the scheme harmed students by denying them sort of rigorous education UNC normally promises.

To date, none of the lawsuits inspired by the case has gained traction in the courts. Tuesday’s ruling came less than a month after U.S. District Court Judge Loretta Biggs rejected a similar one filed by former football player Michael McAdoo and former women’s basketball player Kenya McBee.

In that ruling, Biggs said the litigation didn’t belong in federal court because UNC is an arm of North Carolina’s government and the U.S. constitution doesn’t allow residents of one state to sue another state’s government.

Bryant and her colleagues, having no need to address constitutional issues, focused on legal doctrine that counsels judges to avoid delving “into the nuances of educational processes and theories” to second-guess academic practice.

To North Carolina judges, the doctrine follows from a string of cases that started with one in federal court. As it happens, it involved a Creighton University basketball player who contended the school didn’t give him a meaningful education.

Subsequent cases, including ones in North Carolina, allow breach-of-contract cases when students can point to the violation of specific, binding promises.

But what Arnold and Metcalf wanted was for “this court to inquire into the substance of [the] allegedly deficient courses and make a determination regarding their educational adequacy (or inadequacy),” Bryant said. “This we decline to do.”

Arnold and Metcalf were appealing a Superior Court decision that’d gone against them, and can ask the N.C. Supreme Court to review Tuesday’s ruling.

The Court of Appeals panel was politically bipartisan. Bryan and Inman are Democrats; Hunter is a Republican.

Bryant received her law degree from N.C. Central University, while Hunter and Inman got theirs at UNC-Chapel Hill. They did their undergraduate work at Duke University, UNC-Chapel Hill and N.C. State University, respectively.

Ray Gronberg: 919-419-6648, @rcgronberg