Could Tyrone Hankerson File a $10 Million FERPA Violation Lawsuit Against Howard? Case Law Says Nah, Bruh.

Multiple media outlets are reporting that embattled Howard University law student and “Finesse God” Tyrone Hankerson is planning to sue the institution for $10 million.

Reportedly, Hankerson will accuse the flagship HBCU of leaking his student information to the Internet in a since-deleted Medium post that helped prompt an ongoing student sit-in protest at the university, and leagues of memes of Hankerson in fine clothing and on exotic trips underscoring his purportedly fraudulent access to more than $429,000 in institutional student aid.

Hankerson has not denied receiving money and told Roland Martin in an interview that he was justified in receiving nearly $100,000 annually for his Howard education to cover expenses associated with spring and fall semesters, summer school and study abroad. The specifics of the finances begin at 4:45 of the video.

Neither Hankerson nor his attorneys have released any statement about plans to the sue the university, but if true, Hankerson may have a harder pathway to legal finessing by way of a lawsuit. Federal Educational Rights and Privacy (FERPA) case law suggests that institutions, by the nature of their composition and operation, cannot be held responsible for individual acts leading to compromised student information.

 In Gonzaga University, a teacher certification specialist at the university overheard one student tell another that a certain male student had engaged in acts of sexual misconduct against a female student. The male student planned to graduate and teach at a Washington public elementary school. At the time, Washington required all of its new teachers to obtain an affidavit of good moral character from their graduating college or university. The teacher certification specialist launched an investigation and discussed the allegations against the student with the state agency responsible for teacher certification. Six months later, the certification specialist informed the male student that he would not receive the affidavit required for certification as a Washington schoolteacher.

The student brought a lawsuit against the school for defamation, breach of contract, and violation of his civil rights based on the school’s alleged FERPA violation. A jury found for the student on all counts and awarded him $1,155,000, including $450,000 for the FERPA violation. The case ultimately made its way to the United States Supreme Court on the narrow question of whether FERPA creates an enforceable right for students. The Court reiterated its general rule that, even if a statute is clearly meant to benefit a private party, it does not necessarily provide the party an enforceable right under 42 U.S.C. §1983: “[U]nless Congress speak[s] with a clear voice, and manifests an unambiguous intent to confer individual rights, federal funding provisions provide no basis for private enforcement by 1983.” The Court therefore concluded that, since FERPA’s provisions “speak only to the Secretary of Education” and “speak only in terms of institutional policy and practice, not individual instances of disclosure,” “there is no question that FERPA’s nondisclosure provisions fail to confer enforceable rights.”

It basically suggests that FERPA is a guideline the US Department of Education uses to determine if a school should receive federal funding through grants and contracts or student financial aid disbursements if found to be neglectful in protecting student information, and not as a statue for a criminal violation. Some states, like Michigan, do allow for FERPA violations to be considered as part of defamation or slander litigation against an individual actor, but not an institution.

Sec. 2165. No teacher, guidance officer, school executive or other professional person engaged in character building in the public schools or in any other educational institution, including any clerical worker of such schools and institutions, who maintains records of students’ behavior or who has records in his custody, or who receives in confidence communications from students or other juveniles, shall be allowed in any proceedings, civil or criminal, in any court of this state, to disclose any information obtained by him from the records or such communications; nor to produce records or transcript thereof, except that testimony may be given, with the consent of the person so confiding or to whom the records relate, if the person is 18 years of age or over, or, if the person is a minor, with the consent of his or her parent or legal guardian.

Short of Hankerson proving that Howard officials provided screenshots of his student account and forced or directed someone to release the information on the Internet with the purpose of causing harm to Hankerson, the alleged finessing of Howard may have reached its final destination.