By Madina Toure
The Court of Appeals has upheld St. John’s University School of Law’s decision to invalidate the application of a student who did not disclose an arrest for a drug sale even though his record was expunged.
In a 5-1 decision April 2, the court ruled that the law school’s decision to rescind the application of former student David Powers, 36, for failing to disclose on his admission application that he was originally arrested in 1999 for distribution of LSD and Ecstasy to an undercover officer was not excessive. Powers sued the school in 2011.
The decision was upheld despite the fact that Powers, who lived in Forest Hills during his time as a student, completed a rehabilitation program that dropped his charge to possession and had his record expunged in 2005.
Michael J. Keane, the attorney representing the law school, said the issue rests on Powers not disclosing all the information required in the application.
“The policy is absolutely written in the sense that we say right in the application that if you omit material requested, you may be subject to dismissal or rescission of an awarded degree,” he said. “It’s disclosed and the applicant signed a statement acknowledging that he read that statement.”
But the attorney representing Powers, Ronald Acevedo, who himself had run-ins with the law, sees it differently.
“He’s being penalized for an arrest, not a conviction, so he’s being thrown out for not being convicted of a crime, for allegedly failing to disclose an arrest,” Acevedo said. “An arrest is proof of nothing. Young black men get arrested on the streets of New York City for doing nothing.”
“A past felony conviction does not automatically disqualify an applicant from being admitted to the bar,” Lise Bang-Jensen, a spokeswoman for the New York State Bar Association, wrote in an email. “The Appellate Division of the State Supreme Court makes that determination on an individual basis.”
In 1999, Powers, then 21, was arrested on charges of distributing (LSD and Ecstasy and pleaded guilty in 2000. He entered into a plea bargain that said if he completed a drug rehabilitation program, he could receive a lesser charge of third-degree possession and be sentenced to probation. Powers completed the program.
He received his Bachelor of Science in accounting at Monmouth University in New Jersey and became a certified public accountant.
He earned his master’s degree in taxation at Pace University in New York. In 2004, he was hired by PricewaterhouseCoopers, an accounting firm, despite his conviction.
In October 2005, his criminal conviction was expunged in New Jersey. The expungement order stated that if Powers was ever asked about the incident, he could answer as if it never occurred, Acevedo said.
In November 2005, he applied to be a full-time student at St. John’s and was awarded a $20,000 scholarship. He switched to part-time, reducing his scholarship to $15,000.
He started in September 2006. He had a 3.2 GPA, ranking third out of 20 people in the evening division. He completed three semesters.
In 2008, Powers decided to petition for an advanced ruling with respect to past conduct because he wanted to return to law school and be sure that he could sit for the bar.
But Katherine Sullivan, senior assistant dean for students, wrote in an email Dec. 4, 2008 that the school could not write a letter of support for him because the information he provided in his petition to the New York State Supreme Court Committee on Character and Fitness regarding his original arrest was not included in his law school application.
Powers took a leave absence to take a job in Hong Kong from spring 2008 to fall 2008, where he worked as a director of a tax division and head of finance for a hedge fund.
He took a second leave of absence from spring 2009 to fall 2009 and was scheduled to return in spring 2010.
The school granted his request to return in spring 2011 in the event he would be asked to sign a one-year employment contract with the hedge fund, but denied his request to study abroad in Tokyo for a semester because he did not amend his law school application.
He had to resign from the hedge fund in 2010 because his record turned up during a background check so he chose to return to law school. He received a letter in October 2009 welcoming him back for the spring 2010 semester.
His admission was formally rescinded in a letter dated Sept. 10 from Larry Cunningham, assistant dean for students.
Powers worked at a hedge fund from August 2011 to August 2013 but had to resign again due to his record and the pending lawsuit.
He moved back to New York, working as a certified public accountant and a licensed real estate agent. He is working as a real estate agent in Florida. He has been unable to find full-time employment.
“I personally think it’s a terrible, terrible result to allow the schools to judge people based upon their arrest record rather than a conviction,” Powers said.
Reach reporter Madina Toure by e-mail at mtour