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Kerr v. Vatterott Educ. Ctrs., Inc.

Court of Appeals of Missouri, Western District, Third Division

August 26, 2014

JENNIFER KERR, Respondent,
v.
VATTEROTT EDUCATIONAL CENTERS, INC., Appellant

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Appeal from the Circuit Court of Jackson County, Missouri. Honorable Jack Richard Grate, Judge.

Mark Arnold, St. Louis, MO, Counsel for Appellant.

James Monafo, St. Louis, MO, Co-Counsel for Appellant.

Elizabeth Bozicevic, St. Louis, MO, Co-Counsel for Appellant.

Jeffery McPherson, Clayton, MO, Co-Counsel for Appellant.

William Price, Jr. St. Louis, MO, Co-Counsel for Appellant.

Martin Meyers, Kansas City, MO, Counsel for Respondent.

Kevin Jones, Kansas City, MO, Co-Counsel for Respondent.

Leonard Stephens, Kansas City, MO, Co-Counsel for Respondent.

Gene Graham, Independence, MO, Co-Counsel for Respondent.

Before Division Three: Gary D. Witt, P.J., Joseph M. Ellis, and Thomas H. Newton, JJ. Witt, P.J., and Ellis, J. Concur.

OPINION

Page 806

Thomas H. Newton, Judge

Vatterott Educational Centers, Inc., doing business as Vatterott College (Vatterott), appeals the trial court's judgment in favor of Ms. Jennifer Kerr. Ms. Kerr sued Vatterott for damages under the Missouri Merchandise Practices Act (MMPA), sections 407.010 to 407.130.[1] A jury found Vatterott liable to Ms. Kerr for its deceitful practices in selling a certain educational program offered by its institution. The jury awarded Ms. Kerr compensatory and punitive damages. On appeal, Vatterott challenges the denial of its motion for a directed verdict, the submission of a certain damages instruction, and the amount of the punitive damages award. We affirm and remand.

Factual and Procedural Background

In late 2008, Ms. Kerr decided to return to school to become a registered nurse. In 2009, a representative at Concorde College spoke to Ms. Kerr, during a campus visit, and informed her that the institution did not offer a Nursing Program, but offered a Medical Assistant Program (MA Program). Ms. Kerr felt that the MA Program would not assist her in pursuing a nursing career, so she left. She then contacted Vatterott to determine what programs it offered.

In 2009, Vatterott's catalog advertised two medical programs: (1) MA Program and (2) Medical Office Assistant (MOA) Program. The MA Program was described as a 90-week program, during which students received administrative and clinical training; the MOA Program was described as having a duration of 60 weeks, during which students learned only " administrative clerical duties." At the time, the MA Program cost $33,100, and the MOA Program cost $22,300.

Ms. Leah Lehman, a Vatterott admissions coordinator, met with Ms. Kerr in her office in March 2009. Ms. Kerr told Ms. Lehman that she wanted to become a registered nurse and that she was a single mother who needed to work. Ms. Lehman

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told Ms. Kerr that Vatterott did not have a nursing program, but had a " condensed" MA Program. Ms. Lehman told Ms. Kerr that she would get " more [there] faster," that " everything [she would] get in medical assisting wa[s] the same as [the classes] in nursing," and that she could take the credits with her and " get done faster." Additionally, Ms. Lehman told Ms. Kerr that she could earn money working as a medical assistant while pursuing her nursing degree. Ms. Lehman tried to get her to enroll right away, but Ms. Kerr told her that she would think about it.

Soon after, Ms. Kerr returned to Vatterott and again spoke to Ms. Lehman. Ms. Kerr enrolled later that day. Ms. Kerr did not receive a catalog that day, but she had seen one the first day that the MA Program was explained to her. She inquired about the letters, " MOA," appearing before the course numbers in the catalog listings under the MA Program, and Ms. Lehman told her they stood for the " Medical Office Assistant" Program, which was " one in the same." Around the same time, Ms. Lehman told Ms. Kerr that the MA Program was about $21,000; she was also shown a lab fee of $1,200.

Ms. Lehman gave her a tour of the facility, showing Ms. Kerr the classrooms and the technological lab. She told Ms. Kerr that her hands-on training for the clinical part of the MA Program would occur in the lab. Ms. Lehman filled out the enrollment contract for the MOA Program, slid the contract to Ms. Kerr, and told her where to sign it. Ms. Kerr complied.

Ms. Kerr was then sent to meet with one of Vatterott's financial aid advisors, Ms. Barbara Boone. With Ms. Boone's help, Ms. Kerr obtained federal loans and grants to finance her education. At this time, neither Ms. Lehman nor Ms. Boone told Ms. Kerr that she would need to pay an additional $10,000 to participate in the clinical portion of the MA Program. A month later, Ms. Kerr filled out an orientation document and began the program a few days later.

Just before completing the MOA Program,[2] Ms. Kerr was told to report to the financial aid office because she was on a list to proceed to the MA Program. Ms. Kerr, along with her classmates, was upset because she and they believed that they all had already enrolled in and paid for the MA Program. Once in the office, Ms. Boone told Ms. Kerr that her financial aid had covered only the MOA Program and that she needed to take out an additional loan to pay for the MA Program or " drop." Ms. Kerr told Ms. Boone that she would think about it.

Ms. Kerr addressed her concerns with Ms. Stephanie Hankins, the Director of the Medical Program at the time, about being misled into believing that the clinical portion was included in the program in which she had already enrolled and financed. Ms. Hankins told her that none of her classes would transfer into nursing. Afterward, Ms. Kerr declined to enroll in the MA Program. She finished her last phase of the MOA Program from home. In 2010, she graduated with a Certificate of Completion rather than an Associate of Occupational Studies, which she would have received if she had enrolled in and ...


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