Sides drawn in courtroom showdown over CCSF accreditation

Was the decision to revoke City College of San Francisco's accreditation last year truly a business-related matter?

That sort of nuance is what a San Francisco Superior Court judge was asked to decide Wednesday as part of a lawsuit filed by the City Attorney's Office claiming the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges illegally stripped CCSF of accreditation in 2013. The lawsuit does not seek to reinstate CCSF's accreditation, but rather to restart the original process that saw the school lose such status.

The hearing marked the first time attorneys argued in court about whether the ACCJC's practices are commercial and therefore fall under California's business and professions code (Section 17200) that prohibits unlawful or unfair business acts. The City Attorney's Office maintains that position, claiming the commission violated the code by unjustly revoking CCSF's accreditation.

Attorneys for the ACCJC argued that it is not a commercial enterprise or business that would be covered under the business code because it is a nonprofit public-benefit corporation.

But the City Attorney's Office asserts that because the commission charges for membership fees and accreditation services, its practices do fall under the business statute.

Superior Court Judge Curtis Karnow listened to both sides' motions for summary judgment Wednesday, but did not issue a ruling.

CCSF remains open and fully accredited as it prepares to be evaluated for restoration status, a new ACCJC policy that would give it two more years to reach full accrediting compliance.

Meanwhile, Deputy City Attorney Tom Lakritz pointed out for Karnow on Wednesday four alleged violations of the business code committed by the ACCJC, including the conflict of interest from having the spouse of the commission's president serve on a 2012 evaluation team.

Lakritz emphasized the City Attorney's Office is not calling for the court to force the commission to reinstate CCSF's accreditation, but to require a fair process in determining whether to accredit the school.

“What we're asking the court to do is order the commission to give the institution the opportunity it deserved … in 2012 — that is, an opportunity with a fair evaluation team and a fair commission to seek reaffirmation of its accreditation,” Lakritz said.

However, Andrew Sclar, an attorney for the ACCJC, countered that the commission's purported violations are moot because the court doesn't have the authority to rule on business code violations, as accrediting decisions are not business-related.

“A commercial entity implies competition,” Sclar told Karnow. “We don't compete with others.”

But Deputy City Attorney Ron Flynn said the court absolutely can decide whether the commission broke the law in this case, and emphasized that the ACCJC did not dispute the alleged violations.

“There's no California court that supports the notion that you can charge for your services and you can operate in the manner that [the] ACCJC does and not be covered by the [business code],” Flynn said after the hearing.

“Students and schools are consumers of their services,” he added. “They are entitled to get what they pay for, which is a fair evaluation.”

The business statute typically allows a judge to either order a restitution of property or money that was taken as a result of the suspected unfair business acts, or enter an order preventing the future use of unfair or unlawful business acts. Both are implausible in this case, Sclar said after the hearing.

“The argument we were making was this is not a restoration issue because there is no property or money that was taken,” Sclar said. “And it's not appropriate to 'prevent' because the acts that they complain about are all in the past, and there's no suggestion of any unlawful or unfair business act in the future.”

Karnow's ruling could potentially lead to favorable outcomes for either the ACCJC or the City Attorney's Office. Should he opt not to grant either side's motion, the case is scheduled to go to trial before a judge Oct. 27.

City Attorney Dennis Herrera, who sat in on the hearing, said afterward he was pleased with the arguments his team made.

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