Academic judgment and breach of contract in Ontario

York University law, via their website.Omar Ha-Redeye has blogged on Slaw about an Ontario CA decision that is very relevant to the judicial review proceedings being taken by Andrew Croskery to challenge his degree results in Queen’s University Belfast (on which I have previously blogged: 1, 2, 3). The gravamen of those posts was that courts are slow to disturb substantive academic decisions, though beyond that sphere, they will of course give effect to claims in tort or for breach of contract. This distinction is at the heart of the case at issue in Omar’s blogpost: Jaffer v York University 2010 ONCA 654 (7 October 2010).

In this case, the plaintiff challenged a decision to exclude him at the end of his first year because he had not maintained a sufficient grade average, on the grounds that the university had failed to make proper accommodation for his Trisomy 21 (Down’s Syndrome) and that he had detrimentally relied on an alleged promise by a professor to defer his status while the dispute over disability was resolved. His claim failed at first instance, in part on the ground that, “[w]hile there may be contractual or tortious issues within the broader claim, if the pith and substance of the impugned conduct is academic in nature, the action cannot be continued in the courts” ([24] Pitt J). This does not seem surprising, since the proposition that the Courts will be slow to interfere in matters of purely academic judgment is well-established as a matter of Canadian law (see, eg, Harelkin v University of Regina 1979 CanLII 18 (SCC), [1979] 2 SCR 561 (30 March 1979); followed in Ontario in Paine v University of Toronto (1982) 34 OR (2d) 770 (Ont CA) and Gauthier v Saint-Germain 2010 ONCA 309 (CanLII) (3 May 2010) ([30]-[31], [46], [50] Rouleau jca, en français)).

On the other hand, in Gauthier, Rouleau jca pointed out that since the relationship between a student and university is, of its nature, contractual, it can give rise to obligations both in contract and in tort ([32]-[33], [46]) and the court does not lack jurisdiction solely because the claim arises out of a dispute of an academic nature ([45]). This, too, is well established in Canadian law (Young v Bella 2006 SCC 3 (CanLII), [2006] 1 SCR 108 (27 January 2006)). As ever, the question is not so much about the line as to the side of it on which any given case might fall.

In the appeal in Jaffer, Karakatsanis JA held that Rouleau jca’s judgment in Gauthier “clarified that the decisions of this court upholding the dismissal of claims relating to academic matters did not do so on the basis that the court lacked jurisdiction …, but rather … because the pleadings did not disclose a reasonable cause of action based upon contract, tort, or negligence or … because the cause of action was untenable in law” ([22]). In other words, the proper judicial deference to academic decisions does not deprive the court of jurisdiction, but it does mean that the plaintiff has no exigible claim.
did not implicate purely academic judgments, so she considered the breach of contract and negligent misrepresenation issues, and found them both wanting.

Hence, the question in Jaffer was not whether the dispute was academic in nature, but rather whether the pleadings support a cause of action in either contract or tort ([31]). Unlike Pitt J at first instance, Karakatsanis JA for the Court of Appeal held that appellant’s various claims did not implicate purely academic judgments, so she considered the breach of contract and negligent misrepresenation issues, and found them both wanting. In other words, the distinction between Pitt J and the Court of Appeal turned on the characterisation of the issues as purely academic or not. Unlike Pitt J, Karakatsanis JA held that the issues were not purely academic, and thus went on to consider whether there was a breach of contract or a tort. She found that there was no basis in the facts pleaded upon which to find that accommodation was an express or implied term of the contract between the university and Jaffer, and thus dismissed the breach of contract claim. She also found that the professor’s offer did not constitute a misrepresentation and that there was no causal link between the allged misrepresentation and the damages claimed, so she also dismissed the misrepresentation claim. However, she did allow the appeal to the extent of permitting Jaffer to amend the Statement of Claim to plead the breach of contract and negligent misrepresentation issues with greater particularity.

On this approach, the question which would arise in Andrew Croskery’s application is whether the matter is one of purely academic judgment. If it is, then the Court will not lack jurisdiction but it will be particularly slow to hold against the university. If it is not, then the court can go on to consider his substantive claims. I await Mr Justice Treacy’s decision with interest.