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U.S. Appeals Court Backs Accreditor’s Decision Against a Massage School

In January 2014 a federal judge in Virginia reversed an accreditor’s decision to revoke the accreditation of a massage school in Missouri, and took the unusual step of awarding more than $400,000 in damages to the institution.

On Tuesday a federal appeals court reversed the lower court and upheld the accreditor’s decision, ruling that the district court’s action amounted to “a wholesale substitution of the judgment of the court for that of the agency.”

The case stemmed from a March 2012 decision by the Accrediting Commission of Career Schools and Colleges to revoke the accreditation of the Professional Massage Training Center, in Springfield, Mo. The commission said the training center “lacked administrative continuity and management capacity,” according to court filings.

The massage school eventually sued the accreditor, and Judge Liam O’Grady of the U.S. District Court in Alexandria, Va., ordered the commission to reinstate the center’s accreditation. The accreditor’s decision was “arbitrary and unreasonable,” Judge O’Grady wrote, and was based on vague standards and a lack of attention to its own processes.

The accreditor appealed, and a unanimous three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit ruled that the original decision to revoke the school’s accreditation “was well supported, not arbitrary or capricious.”

“The court greatly expanded the administrative record, held a full multi-day bench trial, received depositions and live testimony in a way that sought to make itself the primary investigator and finder of fact, and went far beyond the focus on procedural fairness to refashion the accreditation decision on the merits,” wrote Judge J. Harvie Wilkinson III for the appellate court.

“To that end, the district court was remedially aggressive not only in its awarding of a large amount of damages,” he wrote, “but also in ordering that the institution in question be reaccredited, thereby overturning the judgment and expertise of an agency that in this case rested on a sound and supportable basis.”

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