California Students and Others Sue Colleges Over Admissions Bribery Scandal

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Shirts with the Stanford University logo are displayed at the Stanford Athletics Shop on March 12, 2019, in Stanford, California. More than 40 people, including actresses Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman, have been charged in a widespread elite college admission bribery scheme. Parents, ACT and SAT administrators, and coaches at universities including Stanford, Georgetown, Yale and the University of Southern California have been charged. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

In the first lawsuit to come out of the college bribery scandal, several students on Wednesday sued Yale, Georgetown, Stanford and other schools entangled in the case, saying they and others were denied a fair shot at admission.

The college admissions bribery scandal

The students, including two from California, brought the class-action complaint in federal court in San Francisco on behalf of themselves and other applicants. They argued that applicants who played by the rules were victimized when rich and famous parents paid bribes that enabled unqualified students to get into highly selective universities.

"The students who filed the complaint didn’t receive what they paid for — to participate in an application process free of fraud. ... these schools represented that their admission process would be based on the applicants’ merits, considering their character and performance," said Lindsey Carr of the Minneapolis-based Zimmerman Reed LLP. "Instead, the students allege that what they got was a process tainted by bribes and school officials who failed to assure an honest application process."

"It’s a straightforward claim and a simple remedy," added Carr, who said they wouldn't be doing interviews. "The students want their money back. They request that anyone who paid an application fee to any of the eight named universities but was denied admission gets their application fee returned."


Charges were announced earlier this week against 50 people, including coaches and dozens of parents, among them TV actresses Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin and a Vancouver tycoon whose children landed spots at UC Berkeley and Chapman University in Southern California. Prosecutors said parents paid to rig standardized exams and bribed coaches to get their children designated as recruited athletes in sports they didn't play, thereby boosting their chances of getting in.

The complaint was brought initially by Erica Olsen and Kalea Woods, now students at Stanford. It was revised Thursday to remove Olsen and add three new plaintiffs, students at Tulane, Rutgers and an unnamed community college in Orange County.

The colleges have cast themselves as victims and have moved to distance themselves from the coaches, firing or suspending them.

One of the institutions named in the lawsuit, the University of Texas at Austin, issued a statement saying that it is "outraged" over the scheme and that any wrongdoing at the school does not reflect its admissions practices and was carried out by "one UT employee."

University of Southern California officials said earlier this week that prosecutors believe that the alleged perpetrators "went to great lengths to conceal their actions from the university." Yale, likewise, said it was "the victim of a crime."

Other schools named in the lawsuit were the University of California at Los Angeles, Wake Forest University and the University of San Diego.

The students in the lawsuit could have a difficult time tying the schools to the fraud in the absence of further evidence, said Joy Blanchard, a professor at Louisiana State University who focuses on higher education law.

"They won't be able to prove that the universities were behind some grand scheme," she said.

Adam Zimmerman, a law professor at Loyola Law School, said he's skeptical the case will go far in court: "It's going to be hard for them to substantiate their claims that they wouldn't have applied at all and thus should be entitled to their admission fees back."

Legal experts said the plaintiffs at highly selective Stanford would have an especially hard time showing they suffered any harm, since they still got into an elite institution. Messages seeking comment from Olsen and Woods were not immediately returned.

Among other claims, the lawsuit said the universities should have discovered the bribes and that their failure to do so through audits or other practices reflects "an unfair business practice."

KQED News' Kate Wolffe and Miranda Leitsinger contributed to this story.