For-profit college company pays $95.5 million to settle whistleblowers’ suits

by Ben Vernia | December 1st, 2015

On November 16, the Department of Justice announced that Pittsburgh-based Education Management Corp. – which owns and operates for-profit colleges under the Art Institutes, South University, Argosy University and Brown-Mackie College brands – had agreed to pay over $95 million to settle claims brought in four separate whistleblower suits that the firm violated Department of Education standards for recruiting students. According to DOJ’s press release:

The United States has reached a landmark global settlement with Education Management Corp. (EDMC), the second-largest for-profit education company in the country, the Department of Justice announced today.  The $95.5 million settlement resolves allegations that EDMC violated federal and state False Claims Act (FCA) provisions by falsely certifying that it was in compliance with Title IV of the Higher Education Act (HEA) and parallel state statutes.

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The primary allegation was that EDMC unlawfully recruited students, in contravention of the HEA’s Incentive Compensation Ban (ICB), by running a high pressure boiler room where admissions personnel were paid based purely on the number of students they enrolled.  In addition to resolving these and other FCA claims, the global settlement also encompasses an investigation by a consortium of state Attorneys General, of consumer-fraud allegations involving deceptive and misleading recruiting practices.

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EDMC, which is headquartered in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, operates nationwide under four post-secondary school brands: the Art Institutes, South University, Argosy University and Brown-Mackie College.  Student enrollment across EDMC’s school brands exceeds 100,000 students.

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The settlement resolves four separate FCA lawsuits filed in federal court in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and Nashville, Tennessee, under the qui tam, or whistleblower, provisions of the act, which permit private individuals to sue on behalf of the government for false claims and to share in any recovery.

The United States and five states intervened and actively litigated one of those four whistleblower lawsuits, United States ex rel. Washington, in the Western District of Pennsylvania.  The United States’ complaint in intervention alleged systemic violations of Title IV of the HEA’s ICB and parallel state provisions, which prohibit schools from paying recruiters based on their success in securing enrollments.  Specifically, the United States and the plaintiff states claimed that from 2003 to the present, EDMC falsely certified to the U.S. Department of Education and various state offices of higher education that it was complying with the ICB, in order to be eligible to receive the federal grant and loan dollars that compose the majority of EDMC’s revenue.  In reality, according to the United States’ complaint in intervention, EDMC was running a high pressure sales business and paid its recruiters based only on the number of students they enrolled.  As a result of these allegedly false certifications, EDMC improperly enriched itself for more than 10 years with federal and state grant and loan dollars.  More broadly, EDMC’s alleged conduct resulted in exactly the problems that Congress sought to curtail when it enacted the ICB:  the enrollment of students in programs for which they lacked the necessary skills and qualifications, unsustainable student debt and default rates and schools’ pursuit of profits ahead of a legitimate educational mission.

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The global settlement with EDMC also resolves three additional federal FCA lawsuits in which the government did not intervene, all involving various violations of Title IV of the HEA by EDMC.

Finally, the global settlement resolves a consumer fraud investigation by a consortium of 40 state Attorneys General, into EDMC’s deceptive and misleading recruiting practices.  The consumer fraud settlement requires EDMC to undertake various compliance obligations, including detailed disclosure obligations to students; prohibitions on deceptive or misleading recruiting practices and oversight by an administrator to ensure compliance.

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The global settlement amount of $95.5 million reflects EDMC’s financial condition and current ability to pay.  The settlement proceeds will be shared among the United States, the co-plaintiff states and the whistleblowers and their counsel in the four FCA cases, and includes funds allocated for the compliance expenses of the state consumer fraud settlement, including the costs of the administrator and the acquisition and use of a sophisticated voice analytics system to record and analyze recruiters’ calls with students.  The United States will receive $52.62 million from the settlement, and will pay $11.3 million collectively to the relators in the four qui tam cases.

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The relators’ share amounts to approximately 21.5% of the federal share of the settlement.

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