Monday, June 24, 2013

Street (and Domicile) Fighter

Roberts v UVM, 2013 VT 30.

Like many in my profession, I question my financial future on a daily basis in light of the soul-crushing load of debt that I casually picked up in exchange for a fancy law degree.  This, in part, is why I sympathize with today’s plaintiff and respect his dedication to the cause of “stickin’ it to the tuition man.” 

If you have experienced the vagaries of modern-day educational funding, particularly at state-funded university, then you may also find today’s student-plaintiff to be your personal hero, however amusingly flawed.

To understand our hero’s epic struggle with the educational bureaucracy, you must comprehend in-state vs. out-of-state tuition status decisions at UVM.  The Vermont Legislature gave UVM the ability to define eligibility for reduced in-state tuition charges, but it insisted that the school maintain the presumption that a student who establishes his residence in Vermont simply to attend UVM does so for the purpose of in-state tuition status and should be denied.  In other words, the Legislature handed UVM a statutory euphemism for “take every dime you can get from the itinerant student bloc and keep it that way.”

The UVM In-State Status Regs read a bit like a list of “we’ve got this covered because we’ve seen it before.”  Regulation 3 excludes from “residence” a home established for the purpose of attending UVM.  Regulation 4 presumes that someone who becomes a student within a year of moving to Vermont is in Vermont to attend school.  And Regulation 7 presumes that financial support from one’s family means you are domiciled with your family, domicile being defined by Regulation 1 as a student’s “true, fixed, and permanent home” to which he intends to return.

Reasonable, right?  But what if you’re the one on the receiving end of an icy “you don’t qualify, flatlander” reply from the financial aid office, who proceeds to charge you with double the in-state tuition rate?  You can understand why the interplay of in-state vs. out-of-state tuition rates is neither as simple nor as fair as it appears.

Enter our plucky young student-hero, who unwittingly disqualified his future self for in-state tuition merely by settling here with the intent to better himself.  In 2007, student moved to Vermont to attend the University of Vermont (“UVM”), drawn by the school’s medical programs.  During student’s 2008-09 freshman year, he was accepted into a UVM’s pre-med-straight-to-med-school program.  He anticipated starting medical school in 2011.

Life As An Adult (™) may, but need not necessarily, include a few expensive years at a university such as UVM, with a $30,000+/year out-of-state tuition rate.  It often also comes with a nagging need to support oneself while studying for a living.  Let’s just say that, like many young university kids, student got a few parental handouts from Dad from time to time.

Student eventually decided, like many transplants do, that he had fallen in love with Vermont and wanted to stay.  Coincidentally, around the same time student also decided he was done paying out-of-state tuition.  In June 2010, student applied for in-state tuition for the Fall 2010 semester.  UVM denied the application, and denied his administrative appeal.  UVM 1 Student 0.

It was around this time, or shortly after, that the size of the handouts increased a bit, a fact which itself coincided with student’s application for med school the following year.  Over the course of student’s senior year, 2010-11, student received a special, magical, and later unexplainable, $47,000 boost to his education trust fund.

After his initial defeat at the beginning of his junior year, student requested in December 2010 in-state tuition status for the Spring 2011 semester.  Student was essentially done with his undergrad degree, but wanted to take a few electives and increase his chances of being picked up by UVM’s med school.  Alas the University denied the application.  UVM 2 Student 0.

Student apparently then either ran out of money or decided he didn’t need those electives anyway.  He didn’t take any Spring classes.  One might imagine that our hero was defeated at this point.   One would be wrong.

Toward graduation in the Spring of 2011, Dad agreed to co-sign on a loan for house he would co-own with student--a house worth over $400,000.  That’s right, this kid got a near half-million dollar house out of the whole deal, all on a student salary of $13,000-15,000 per year.  Did I say I was sympathetic?

Student tried a third time in March 2011, and requested in-state tuition status for a few Summer courses, shortly before he was accepted to UVM’s med school.  UVM denied his application, and upheld the decision on appeal.  UVM 3 Student 0.

Through Summer 2011, or shortly before it, student gathered some ammunition.  He got a job working part-time at the airport.  He also realized he should be (or had been) paying state income taxes, carrying around a Vermont driver’s license, registering to vote in Vermont, and banking in Vermont.

Fourth time’s always the charm, so what the heck, student took another shot.  In August 2011, armed with his new weapons of residency indicia, student asked again for in-state status.  This time it was for the 2011-2012 academic year, his first year of med school and, one might imagine, something of a lesser end boss.

You know what’s coming--another steaming slag pile of denial for student.  In its decision, UVM was clear that its decision was based on student’s failure to provide clear and convincing evidence sufficient to rebut the presumption that he was an itinerant student.  UVM 4 Student 0.  Ouch.

This time, student got fed up, and invoked the lesser deity of the superior court appeal.  UVM moved for dismissal/partial summary judgment.  The trial court granted UVM’s motion.  Regulation 4 didn’t apply because student had lived in Vermont for more than a year before applying to med school.  Student had also sufficiently demonstrated he had established a domicile in Vermont.  But, the trial court concluded, UVM was ultimately right--he hadn’t met his burden to rebut the presumption.


If fighting the good administrative fight were a video game, the SCOV would be the end boss.  Student finds himself in a distinctly Davidian position, goliath institutions breathing down on him and one paltry victory under his belt from the trial court’s acknowledgement that he was, for all intents and purposes, in fact domiciled in Vermont.

Out comes the appellate sword (snickersnack!), only to be crossed with UVM’s own.  Student appeals to the SCOV on UVM’s denial.  UVM cross-appeals on the trial court’s interpretation of its regulations.

The standard of review on today’s case is a bit different because the SCOV is reviewing an administrative decision.  The SCOV will work from scratch with the evidence presented to UVM, uphold the trial court’s factual findings unless clearly erroneous, and grant deference to UVM’s interpretation of its own regulations.

Student’s beefs get addressed initially, namely that 1) the trial court concluded student was domiciled in Vermont, but still upheld UVM’s denial, and 2) the amended version of Reg 3 applied here, excluding from “residence” a home established for the purpose of attending UVM, was inapplicable, unreasonable, inconsistent with enabling legislation, and unconstitutional under both state and federal constitutions.

The SCOV initially notes with regards to student’s “domicile” argument that the trial court’s conclusion on that point is basically meaningless.  The SCOV is looking at UVM’s findings and conclusions with fresh eyes, not the court below’s.

In addition, we’re talking about university “domicile,” not “common-law domicile.”  Not only does UVM set an arbitrary one-year mark before a student can apply for in-state tuition, its regulations set up presumptions and criteria that are not usually considered in deciding domicile in other contexts.  Quite a different scheme.

With that in mind, the SCOV tallies up UVM’s findings for the final score.  In one column are the product of student’s having gone through the motions to establish residency (driver’s license, voter registration, etc.), and his seemingly earnest desire to stay in Vermont.  In the other are the fact that: 1) student did move to Vermont to attend UVM; 2) his timing in applying/starting med school was suspicious; 3) he had in fact had some handouts from out-of-state Dad; 4) he found a magical education-trust-fund-balloon fairy; and 5) right before he started med school Dad basically handed him a house he could not possibly afford.

Sorry, student--UVM’s conclusions were reasonable given these facts.  It is what it is.

The SCOV gives a nod to the fact that student does seem to intend to stay.  But an educational resident establishing a “domicile” is about the most likely demographic to move into a state, take advantage of its benefits, then say “sayonara” 4-5 years later.  That in itself justifies the Legislature’s decision to support potential Vermonter UVM attendees by instituting reasonable rules governing in-state tuition qualification that weed out the flatlanders intent on moving back home after graduation.  The SCOV understands that overcoming the presumption to get in-state tuition is “a heavy” burden.  But what the Legislature wants, the Legislature gets.

UVM 5 Student 0.   And, true to form, the SCOV dodges student’s constitutional flail after countering his initial front.  The SCOV’s decision is limited to the domicile question.  

The SCOV deals with UVM’s cross-appeal in a few brief paragraphs, without having to reinvent the wheel.  For the same reasons the SCOV found UVM’s decision on student’s in-state tuition status reasonable, the SCOV finds that UVM’s interpretation of its own regulations was also reasonable.

Game over.  Kid gets the house, but will have to suck it up and pays the full tuition rate to finish med school.  Too bad he lost the chance to take some of those electives—I hear underwater basket weaving is lovely this time of year.  

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