Is handbook a contract? Judge rules it is not

(Editor’s Note: Names have been withheld from the following to protect the identity of a minor student.)

It outlines requirements and behavioral expectations, violating it can result in disciplinary action, you sign a statement acknowledging you have read it and agree to abide by its contents, but it isn’t a contract.

On Tuesday, Judge Gregory Hammond signed an order sustaining the Warren County School District’s preliminary objection to a complaint filed by a Youngsville High School student’s parents on her behalf.

According to the complaint, the student participated in a school-sanctioned, extra-curricular activity which caused her to be absent from school for three days.

The complaint alleged, and the district acknowledged, the student made a good faith effort to acquire missed work for completion, both before her absence and after her return. A teacher refused to allow her to complete assignments after her return, resulting in a zero grade on her assignment.

The inability to complete the assignment allegedly affected the student’s class rank, potentially preventing her from graduating as valedictorian. The change in rank, according to the complaint, could impact a scholarship offer worth more than $30,000 per year.

The parents sought an order allowing the student to make up her assignment “without prejudice”, have her results entered on her permanent record “for the determination of her class rank” and to award legal fees and additional ancillary relief “as a deterrent… against future similar actions”; citing guidelines on attendance, completing makeup assignments and teacher authority guidelines included in the district’s student handbook.

The order was sought under Pennsylvania’s Declaratory Judgement Act, which allows adjudication of issues for, “Any person interested under a deed, will, written contract, or other writings constituting a contract, or whose rights, status, or other legal relations are affected by a statute, municipal ordinance, contract, or franchise.”

The complaint alleged the case qualified for adjudication under the Declaratory Judgement Act as the handbook constituted a “social quasi contract.”

In a preliminary objection, the district disputed the status of the handbook as a quasi contract citing a previous ruling in Pennsylvania, Trans. v. State Dept. of Higher Education, which found a student handbook at a public university did not constitute a contract.

No case law regarding the status of student handbooks at the pre-college level, when attendance is compulsory, was available.

Arguments on the objection were held last Wednesday, Aug. 28, before Hammond.

Hammond ruled for the school district on the basis that the student handbook does not constitute a legally binding agreement valid under the state’s Declaratory Judgement Act.

According to Hammond’s opinion accompanying the order, “The student handbook for the Warren County School District… does not constitute a contract. Rather, the student’s signature constitutes an acknowledgment of the student’s responsibilities.

“Because the student handbook is not a contract, the Declaratory Judgement Act does not apply… and plaintiff cannot state a claim for which relief can be granted.”

The ruling in favor of the district resulted in the dismissal of the initial complaint.

The issue was brought before the court after the family attempted to resolve the issue through administrative channels.