When May an Academic Complaint be Brought to Court? Clarification from the Ontario Court of Appeal

Yona Gal, J.D., LL.MAdministrative Law, Contract Disputes, Jurisdictional Challenges0 Comments

In Lam v University of Western Ontario, 2019 ONCA 82, the Ontario Court of Appeal reiterated that courts have jurisdiction over claims for damages for breach of contract and tort even when the claims arose out of an academic dispute.

Judicial History

After commencement of the action by the student, the university brought a motion for summary judgment.  The principal basis for the motion was that the student’s claim related to the university’s decisions about teaching, mentoring, supervising and administering its Ph.D. program and therefore to matters that are “purely academic in nature” [para 22].  The motion judge granted summary judgment dismissing the action.  The motion judge held that academic issues must be distinguished from legal issues when reviewing a university’s conduct, and that academic issues are to be resolved by the university’s internal process, subject to judicial review [para 23].

In reversing the motion judge’s decision, the Court of Appeal clarified that determining whether a student’s complaint should proceed through a university’s internal process or before the courts does not depend on whether the complaint is academic or legal in nature.  Rather, the determining factor is the remedy sought. If the student alleges a tort or breach of contract, then the courts have jurisdiction; but if the student seeks to overturn a decision within the discretion of the university, then the proper venue is the university’s internal process, subject to judicial review [para 29].

General Principles

The Ontario Court of Appeal previously outlined the general principles governing the legal relationship between a student and a university in Gauthier v Saint-Germain, 2010 ONCA 309 and Jaffer v York University, 2010 ONCA 654, which include the following [para 31]:

  • The relationship between a student and a university has a contractual foundation, giving rise to duties in contract and tort.
  • A student who enrolls at a university agrees to be subject to the institution’s discretion in resolving academic matters, including the assessment of the quality of the student’s work and the organization and implementation of university programs.
    • This is an implied term, which must be considered in light of the contract’s express terms and the legal obligation any contract entails.
  • The remedy sought is indicative of jurisdiction.
    • If the claim is for damages for a breach of contract or tort, jurisdiction exists even if the dispute arises out of an academic matter.
    • If the claim is to reverse an internal academic decision, then the claim must be resolved by the university – subject to judicial review.

The consequence of these principles is that a claim that does not allege conduct outside of the university’s broad discretion does not allege a breach of contract.  For that reason, a claim that only alleges that the university should have exercised its discretion differently must be resolved by the internal processes of the university – subject to judicial review.  However, if the claim alleges that the university acted outside the discretion it possess under contract, then the claim alleges a breach of contract and the courts have jurisdiction [para 31].

Conclusion

The Court of Appeal found that the real issue the motion judge should have addressed was not whether dispute was academic in nature but whether the genuine issues of fact that he found existed would, if resolved at trial, establish a cause of action in contract for which damages were claimed [para 34].

Accordingly, the Court of Appeal allowed the appeal, set aside the decision of the motion judge, and substituted an order dismissing the University’s motion for summary judgment and directing that the matter proceed to trial.

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Yona Gal, J.D., LL.M

Yona Gal, J.D., LL.M

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