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“Varsity Blues:” Lessons to Be Learned from the Admissions Scandal

In March, federal prosecutors announced criminal charges in connection with the nation’s largest-ever college admissions prosecution.  The federal investigation, called “Operation Varsity Blues,” involved 200 agents and resulted in charges against 50 people in six states.  Those charged include wealthy parents, athletic directors, college coaches, and test administrators.  This investigation and resulting prosecution directly calls into question the integrity of the admission processes at competitive educational institutions, in addition to raising concern about fraudulent test scores and the ability of wealthy parents to use bribes disguised as charitable contributions to secure their child’s acceptance into elite institutions.

Among the allegations are claims that parents conspired to bribe varsity coaches and administrators at elite universities to designate applicants as recruited athletes, thereby facilitating the applicants’ admission to those universities.  As part of the scheme, parents assisted in creating fabricated athletic profiles that provided the basis for preferential admission.  In other instances, parents worked with an outside consultant to falsify test scores to enhance students’ admission profiles.

In the wake of these criminal charges, two Stanford University students have filed a federal lawsuit in the Northern District of California seeking class-action status against some of the same universities.  The students claim that the schools represented that their admission process would be based on the applicants’ merits, when, instead, they received an admissions process that was “warped and rigged by fraud.”  The students seek approximately $5 million in compensatory and punitive damages. Olsen v. Stanford University, et. al., 3:10-cv-01351, see page 16 (N.D. Cal. filed March 13, 2019).

Moving forward, there are a number of proactive steps that colleges and independent schools should consider to safeguard against potential risks or vulnerabilities that have come to light as a result of the Varsity Blues investigation. Continue Reading

New Tax Law Requires Exempt Organizations to E-File Annual Forms 990

On July 1, 2019, President Trump signed into law the Taxpayer First Act of 2019 which, among other things, expands the types of tax-exempt organizations that must file their annual returns electronically.

Currently, a tax-exempt organization is required to e-file its annual Form 990-series return (990, 990-EZ, 990-N, 990-T or 990-PF) only if the tax-exempt organization:

  1. Has total assets at the end of the year of $10 million or more and is required to file at least 250 returns (including Forms W-2 or 1099) during the calendar year ending with or within its taxable year;
  2. Is a private foundations or charitable trusts that files at least 250 returns during the calendar year; or
  3. Files a Form 990-N (e-postcard).

The new e-filing requirement applies to all tax-exempt organizations required to file a Form 990-series return or a Form 8872 (“Political Organization Report of Contributions and Expenditures”). However, organizations exempted from filing information returns, such as churches and governmental entities, are not affected by the new e-filing requirements. Continue Reading

SEE YOU IN COURT! – July/August 2019

The members of the Nutmeg Board are very concerned about whether and how they will make ends meet this year. The Town slashed their budget request during the appropriation process, and as things stand at the beginning of the new fiscal year, they are looking at a deficit approaching $1,000,000.

Veteran Board member Bob Bombast warned his fellow Board members that they better do something and fast, and he promised to put on his thinking cap and to be back to his fellow Board members with some bright ideas.

Realizing that he had to think outside the box, Bob reached out to Bruno, President of the Nutmeg Union of Teachers (NUTS), and they met for coffee. Bruno was sympathetic to Bob’s concerns about the projected deficit in the Board’s budget, explaining that he did not want the Board to have to lay off teachers to save money.

“I have talked with our Executive Committee, and NUTS has two great suggestions for the Board of Education to save money,” Bruno announced grandly. “The first is an early retirement incentive program. If we can work together to adopt such a plan, the Board can save a bundle.”

Bob was intrigued. “Some of these teachers should have retired long ago. Maybe we can get rid of some old deadwood and save money! What do you propose?”

“We will keep it simple. Teachers with twenty or more years of service will be able to participate in the plan, and upon retirement, they will receive a payment of $40,000. After making those payments the Board will be even for the first year, and it will save for years to come on the cost difference between the teachers on the maximum step who retire and their replacements who are hired at the bottom of the scale!”

Bob liked the sound of that, though he was hoping for more immediate savings, and he asked Bruno if he had any other bright ideas.

“Of course!” Bruno responded. “The Board can save money right now if it offers teachers money to waive health insurance, say $3,000 for a teacher on a single plan and $6,000 for a family plan. Given that the cost of insurance is approaching $15,000 for an individual plan and $30,000 for a family plan, the Board will save a bundle whenever teachers take the waiver payment and get off the Board’s plan!”

Bob thanked Bruno for his creative suggestions, and Bruno then suggested that they lock in these savings by putting both the early retirement plan and the insurance waiver in the contract so that they would not have to revisit these issues every year.

“Done,” Bob responded. Bob then emailed his fellow Board members, informing them that he will be asking Mr. Board Attorney to put together a little contract amendment to present to the Board for action.

What’s wrong with this picture? Continue Reading

CAS Legal Mailbag Question of the Week – 6/19/2019

Originally appeared in the CAS Weekly Newsletter.
Written by attorney Thomas B. Mooney.

Dear Legal Mailbag:

In an attempt to reduce electronic device distractions and to maintain an academic culture of focused and sustained instruction, our Freshman Academy teachers are brainstorming ideas to limit the access students have to their cell phones. Currently, if cell phones become a distraction to the learning environment or after several warnings, teachers can call the office to have an administrator or their designee come to the room and confiscate the phone. That phone will then be held in the administrator’s office, locked away until the end of the day when the student can pick it up. We have told staff NOT to confiscate phones themselves because of the liability they will incur if that cell phone they’ve confiscated goes missing. Essentially, we, administratively, have taken on that liability and also have a reduced student presence in our offices that significantly lessens the potential for a cell phone to go missing.

One of their proposals, which leads to my question, is they would like to have an area in their room (picture those hanging shoe bags or calculator bags) where students put their cell phones for the duration of the class. What are the potential legal pitfalls if teachers have students keep their cell phones in a designated area in the classroom? Does their liability lessen if students are given a suggestion vs. a mandate of keeping their cell phones in this location?

While my recommendation was to have students keep their phones on silent, do not disturb or even off and placed in their backpack, I told them I would look into their idea and what potential issues they may face if they have this cell phone “island” in their classroom, especially if one of the phones goes missing.

Thank you,
Cell Phobic
Continue Reading

2019 NAPLA Conference

Shipman & Goodwin attorney Leander Dolphin will participate in the panel discussion “Advising the Applicant with a Disability” at the 2019 Northeast Association of Pre-Law Advisors (NAPLA) Conference.

The panelists will discuss what a pre-law advisor should know about helping applicants with disabilities navigate the application process, as well as how a pre-law advisor might work with an applicant to assure that their needs are met in law school as well as for the bar exam. The discussion will cover these areas and explain how accommodations and services might differ in law school from undergraduate school. Advisors will increase their understanding of the process for obtaining accommodations as well as understand the variety of approaches law schools take in handling accommodations so that they are better equipped to provide relevant advice.


  • Jennifer Cerny, Executive Director of Student Affairs and Assistant Dean of Students, UConn Law School
  • Leander A. Dolphin, Partner, Shipman & Goodwin LLP
  • Karen DeMeola, Assistant Dean for Finance, Administration, and Enrollment, UConn Law School

When: June 19, 2019, 1:45 PM – 3:00 PM EDT
Where: Boston University School of Law

Please click here for more information.

SEE YOU IN COURT! – June 2019

The Nutmeg Board of Education is getting ready to close out its books for the 2018-2019 school year, and some of the new Board members are anxious about the possibility of ending the year in deficit. Veteran Board member Bob Bombast has been trying to calm them down, but others in the community have been claiming that the Board members will be personally liable for the additional funds if the budget is over-expended at the end of the year.

Given the continuing concern, as its Chairperson, Bob called a meeting of the Board’s Finance Committee. “OK,” Bob started the meeting abruptly. “Mr. Superintendent, where do we stand on the budget?”

“Well, it was a bad year for special education expenses, and we over-expended that account back in February. We also have had some unanticipated salary expenses, but we are holding our own in the fringe benefits, utilities, supplies, and the grounds maintenance accounts. It will be close, but if we tighten our belts and stop buying supplies, we have a fighting chance to end the year in the black.”

New Board member Penny Pincher blanched noticeably when she heard Mr. Superintendent’s report. “Fighting chance? That scares me! I don’t get paid for this job, and I certainly don’t have the money to make up some deficit!”

Bob tried to reassure Penny by noting that the Board ended the year in a deficit some years ago, and no one had to pay up. But Mr. Superintendent couldn’t leave well enough alone, and he explained that actually the Town had “loaned” the Board money that year from the following year’s appropriation to make up the deficit.

Annoyed, Bob pointedly asked Mr. Superintendent to explain the problem with the special education account. Mr. Superintendent told Bob and Penny that more and more parents of children receiving special education services have been demanding and receiving ESY services. Now Penny was annoyed, asking what are “ESY” services and how much do they cost. Mr. Superintendent explained, “ESY stands for ‘extended school year’ services, and it means that some students receive services over the summer. It can be expensive!”

Mr. Superintendent’s response to Penny got Bob’s attention. “Well,” Bob announced grandly, “that’s not going to happen! We will hold school 180 days, period. That was plenty for me, and it should be enough for everyone else. If parents want summer school, they should pay for it. Mr. Superintendent, please pass on the word.”

Mr. Superintendent tried to explain that special education is, well, special, and that the Board cannot just adopt blanket rules. But Bob and Penny were not to be dissuaded. Mr. Superintendent’s objections notwithstanding, Bob called for a vote of the Finance Committee, and by a two to none vote (the third member of the Finance Committee was absent) the Committee voted to limit Board-sponsored schooling to 180 school days per year.

Will this new rule save Nutmeg money? Continue Reading

CAS Legal Mailbag Question of the Week – 5/29/2019

Originally appeared in the CAS Weekly Newsletter.
Written by attorney Thomas B. Mooney.

Dear Legal Mailbag:

As the assistant principal in a middle school, I have been responsible for evaluating a number of teachers for several years. In general, it has been fine, though our teacher evaluation plan is nothing to write home about. However, one teacher has been acting weird this year, and I have not been sure what to do.

Specifically, in my classroom observations, I have noticed that the teacher has been somewhat disorganized, and her lesson plans have left a lot to be desired. Frankly, I have wondered if she is doing drugs. After observing her twice, I decided to confront her, and I asked her if she was all right. She quickly responded that she was fine, but she then asked why I was raising the question. Summoning my best bedside manner, I explained that she seemed a little “off, almost like she is taking drugs” when she was teaching.

She surprised me with her response. She became indignant, and said, “Well, you know that I have diabetes!” Then I got indignant in return because anyone knows that diabetes does not affect a teacher’s organizational skills. I told her that I don’t need bogus excuses, and what I do need is for her to pay attention to her teaching responsibilities. We left it that I would observe her again next week, and I warned her that I would be putting her on a plan unless I see a noticeable improvement in her lesson plans and her teaching.

I am pleased with myself for pushing back on her medical excuse because it seems like disability claims are a growth industry. But I would be grateful if Legal Mailbag can assure me that I did the right thing here.

Thank you,
No Excuses
Continue Reading

CAS Legal Mailbag Question of the Week – 5/22/2019

Originally appeared in the CAS Weekly Newsletter.
Written by attorney Thomas B. Mooney.

Dear Legal Mailbag:

I am concerned that one of the assistant principals at my school may be using drugs. He is often jumpy and irritable. Moreover, he always seems to have a runny nose, which I know from watching television can be a sign of cocaine abuse.

As an assistant principal, he has a district-issued cell phone, and I’d bet dollars to donuts that I can find text messages on his phone to show his drug involvement. I know that we have to sign off on some sort of waiver when we use district technology, and I presume that this assistant did so as well. Can I sit him down in my office and order him to turn over his cell phone to me?

Thank you,
Call Me Curious Continue Reading

Upcoming Seminar: Hot Topics in Special Education – Hartford

Rebecca Santiago and Peter Maher for a timely discussion of hot topics and legal developments in special education law. Topics will include:

  • Update on trends in special education
  • State complaint process, how do you respond to a state complaint
  • Update on current bills & pending legislation
  • Review of recent State Department of Education hearings & decisions

This program is intended for: Special Education/Pupil Services Directors, Administrators, and Personnel; Superintendents; Assistant Superintendents, and Executive Directors. We look forward to seeing you at this complimentary seminar for our public and charter school clients.

When: June 11, 2019, 8:00 AM – 10:30 AM EDT

Where: 8:00 – 8:30 AM, Registration/Breakfast | 8:30 AM – 10:30 AM, Seminar/Webinar

Shipman & Goodwin Hartford Office
Courtroom – 20th Floor
One Constitution Plaza
Hartford, CT
Get Directions >>


*This program will also be offered via streaming video, click here to register for this option.

Seating is limited and registration will close when we reach maximum capacity for the event space. Please contact us in advance if you are registering more than 4 attendees from your district.

Can’t attend the live program?
This program will also be offered via streaming video, click here to register for this option. All registrants will receive a recording of the program after the event

The IRS Enters the 21st Century

The IRS has provided notice that effective May 28, 2019, it will be expanding the methods by which a tax-exempt independent school, college or university (a “school”) can satisfy the required disclosure of its racially nondiscriminatory policy by now permitting schools to publish such policy on the school’s website.


The IRS currently requires that schools adopt and annually publicize a racially nondiscriminatory policy regarding students. The policy must provide, at minimum, that:

  1. The school admits students of any race, color, national and ethnic origin to all the rights, privileges, programs, and activities generally accorded or made available to students at the school; and
  2. The school does not discriminate on the basis of race, color, national and ethnic origin in administration of its educational policies, admissions policies, scholarship and loan programs, and athletic and other school-administered programs.

Continue Reading

CAS Legal Mailbag Question of the Week – 5/8/2019

Originally appeared in the CAS Weekly Newsletter.
Written by attorney Thomas B. Mooney.

Dear Legal Mailbag:

I am one of the assistant principals at my high school and I share the duty to oversee the athletic program with my principal. Over recent years, there has been a steady increase of parents using small video cameras, iPads and even cell phones to record images of athletic competitions and, sometimes, even practices. As I have observed the growing practice, I would shrug my shoulders and figure that no one, least of all me, can stand in the way of progress, and my principal seemed not to care much either.

Last week, that changed. My principal got an email from an irate parent of a student athlete, outraged that another parent had posted video excerpts of a soccer match at our high school on his Facebook page. It didn’t help that the son of the complaining parent was the goalie, and that the video clip showed the son diving clumsily and unsuccessfully at the ball as the other player scored the game-winning goal. My principal is a survivor, and he saw no good coming from his getting in the middle of these two parents, and in the best management tradition, he dumped the problem on my lap to “figure it out!” Being a good soldier, I accepted the assignment.

I did a bunch of research and I concluded that the posting of the video by the second parent was a FERPA violation because the goalie’s face and identity were clearly visible and, as such, the recording was personally-identifiable information about the goalie. I called the parent who posted the video and directed him to take down the video. I was gratified by his prompt agreement, but I was surprised by his claim that he was doing so as a courtesy, and not because he had to. I asked him if he knew what he was talking about, and he assured me that he did, gratuitously adding that he could not say the same for me.

What gives?

Thank you,
Privacy Protector  Continue Reading