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Sojourner-Douglass College (Maximilian Franz/The Daily Record)

Summary judgment sought in Sojourner-Douglass case

Another term was set to begin at Sojourner-Douglass College this month but the school remains embroiled in a legal battle to regain its accreditation and must respond to a motion for summary judgment filed by the Middle States Commission on Higher Education.

The summary judgment filing was made Oct. 30. Sojourner-Douglass initially had to respond by Nov. 16, but John H. Morris Jr., the college’s lawyer, sought and received on Thursday a two-week extension.

The college formally lost its accreditation June 30 and a request for preliminary injunction was denied in August. As a result, no classes were scheduled for the college’s July term. But the college’s president, Dr. Charles Simmons, said over the summer that the staff continued to work and hoped classes could resume in November.

Simmons did not return a call requesting comment.

Morris, a Baltimore solo practitioner, this week called Sojourner-Douglass “an institution in the Baltimore community” that people depended on.

“People are struggling to begin with and this just compounds the struggle that they have,” he said.

The college, which was created in 1972 in Baltimore and had several satellite campuses in Maryland, has experienced severe financial difficulties. It lost more than $5 million in 2012, according to the school’s most recently available tax statements.

Sojourner-Douglass sought a temporary restraining order and filed a lawsuit June 29 against the commission alleging the it was denied due process. Without accreditation, the East Baltimore college cannot receive federal funds; at least 80 percent of the college’s tuition revenue comes from federal grants and loans, according to court filings.

Morris argued at the injunction hearing in August that the accreditation commission “moved the goal post” throughout the process by changing its requests for information and refused to allow additional evidence at an appeal hearing that would have shown the school’s projections to pay off its debts.

In the motion for summary judgment, the commission argued the due process claim fails as a matter of law because “the policies, procedures and processes established by the Commission for assessing SDC’s accreditation and considering its appeal of the Commission’s decision conform to fundamental principles of fairness.”

In a statement of undisputed facts, the commission claims it followed its own rules and communicated with Sojourner-Douglass frequently throughout the process, which took three years.

Sojourner-Douglass was notified that its accreditation was at risk in August 2011, according to the motion, and its financial stability was described as “fragile.” Despite warnings, the college continued to take out loans to pay operating expenses, the commission alleged.

In her August memorandum denying a preliminary injunction, U.S. District Judge Ellen L. Hollander said Sojourner-Douglass’ contention that it was not afforded notice and an opportunity to respond “borders on specious” and that “the record overwhelmingly showed that the Commission followed its own procedures as well as federal regulations, essentially to a tee.”

The case is Sojourner-Douglass College v. Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools, 1:15-cv-01926-ELH.