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American University in Dubai v. Dist. of Columbia Education Licensure Commission

August 9, 2007


Appeals from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia (L01-05 and CA8291-03) (Hon. Geoffrey M. Alprin, Trial Judge).

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Blackburne-rigsby, Associate Judge

Argued January 4, 2007

Before RUIZ and BLACKBURNE-RIGSBY, Associate Judges, and SCHWELB, Senior Judge.

The American University in Dubai appeals a trial court order directing the Education Licensure Commission to revoke its license where AUD was not made a party to, and did not have notice of, the proceeding before the Superior Court.*fn2 We conclude that the failure to join AUD as a party to the Superior Court action that resulted in the revocation of its educational license was reversible error, and that the Commission's proceeding following the trial court's order failed to provide AUD with the required notice. Accordingly, we vacate the trial court's April 15, 2005 Order and the Commission's May 11, 2005 Order revoking AUD's license, which was predicated on the trial court's order, and we remand the case to the Superior Court with directions to dismiss the action for failure to join AUD as an indispensable party.

In reaching our conclusion, we focus our analysis on three questions: (1) whether the trial court had jurisdiction to hear the action brought by American University challenging the Education Licensure Commission's renewal of AUD's license and seeking revocation of AUD's license;*fn3 (2) whether the trial court was required to join AUD as an indispensable party in an action which led to its license being revoked; and (3) whether AUD's rights were violated when the Commission, following the trial court's order, revoked AUD's license without the required notice.*fn4 We answer each of these questions affirmatively, and following a discussion of the relevant factual and procedural background, we will address each question in turn.

I. Factual Background

AUD is an accredited institution founded in October 1995 and located in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. It is a private, for-profit, non-sectarian institution of higher learning and a branch campus of the American InterContinental University in Atlanta, Georgia. Although AUD does not currently operate a campus in the District of Columbia, AUD sought licensure in the District of Columbia so that it would have the ability to confer degrees in the District, and so that it could market itself as having the ability to confer degrees in the District. According to AUD's president Dr. Lance de Masi in his May 9, 2005 Declaration, which is part of the trial court record: "ELC [Education Licensure Commission] licensure has materially contributed to AUD's reputation for quality and its international statute [sic] as a highly regarded institution of higher education in the UAE, the Gulf Region and throughout the world."

On June 11, 1998, the Commission issued Resolution No. D-98-06, granting AUD a District of Columbia license for a term ending June 30, 2001. Two days before AUD's license was due to expire, the Commission held Public Session No. 04-01, which counsel for AU attended, and during which, counsel raised objections to the renewal of AUD's license on the grounds that AUD was using the word "American" in its title in violation of D.C. Code § 29-618 (2001). Section 29-618 specifically prohibits an institution of learning incorporated*fn5 or doing business in the District, from using the word "American" in its title.*fn6 Despite AU's objections, the Commission granted AUD an extension of its license for one month pending receipt from AUD of an application for license renewal.

On July 19, 2001, the Commission approved, by resolution, a six-month extension of AUD's license, not to exceed February 2, 2002. The Commission's approval was subject to several requirements, most notably the requirements that AUD schedule a follow-up site evaluation and change its name to omit the word "American." At the Commission's next public session, on July 26, 2001, counsel for AU reiterated its objections to the Commission's renewal of AUD's license on the grounds that AUD had not removed "American" from its title and was still in violation of D.C. Code § 29-618. However, the Commission again voted to extend AUD's license for an additional six months. Thereafter, in a letter, dated September 26, 2001 to the Commission, the president of AUD, Dr. Lance de Masi, confirmed AUD's intent to seek full renewal of its license beyond the period granted by the July 19, 2001 resolution. Dr. de Masi also advised the Commission in his letter that AUD did not intend to change its name:

With regard to the issue surrounding the name of our institution, I urge the Commission to consider that AUD enjoys a very strong and positive reputation . . . . A change in the University's name would cause enormous confusion as well as harm the interest of current students and, most particularly, graduate[s]. While we are thereforeunwilling to abandon our institution's name and identity, we are certainly amenable to working with the government of the District of Columbia to resolve this matter in an amicable manner.

Although the site evaluation was conducted,*fn7 AUD never changed its name as directed by the Commission.

On November 29, 2001, the Commission again temporarily extended AUD's license for a period ending no later than August 3, 2002, subject to an express requirement that AUD change its name to comply with D.C. Code § 29-618. The Commission held its final hearing on the matter on October 31, 2002. Over the continuing objections of AU, the Commission issued Resolution No. D-02-010 at this hearing, renewing AUD's license through August 4, 2005, subject to six requirements, none of which, notably, was for AUD to change its name.

II. Procedural History

On October 10, 2003, one year after the Commission's final hearing renewing AUD's license, AU filed a complaint in Superior Court against the District of Columbia, alleging that the Commission had renewed AUD's license in violation of D.C. Code § 29-618. AU sought a declaratory judgment against the Commission, declaring that it improperly construed D.C. Code § 29-618, and prohibiting AUD from using "American" in its title. AU also sought an injunction requiring the Commission to revoke AUD's license if they failed to change their name. However, AUD was not named as a defendant, nor was AUD notified of the Superior Court action.*fn8 Following the close of discovery, both AU and the District cross-moved for summary judgment. In their respective motions, AU argued that it was entitled to summary judgment because the Commission's licensure of AUD, as well as other institutions, was in violation of D.C. Code § 29-618, and the District argued that AU lacked standing to bring its claim, and that the Superior Court lacked subject matter jurisdiction to hear the claim.*fn9 In an April 15, 2005 Order, the trial court, relying solely on the standards of Super. Ct. Civ. R. 56, and not those of the District of Columbia ...

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