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Cheng v. United States Sports Academy, Inc.

United States District Court, D. Massachusetts

March 14, 2019

KUAN CHENG, Plaintiff,
v.
UNITED STATES SPORTS ACADEMY, INC., Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM AND ORDER ON DEFENDANT'S MOTION TO DISMISS

          F. DENNIS SAYLOR IV UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         This is a dispute arising out of enrollment in an internet-based education program. Defendant United States Sports Academy, Inc. (“USSA”) is a private online educational institution based in Alabama. Plaintiff Kuan Cheng enrolled in a USSA program while living in Alabama. He then moved to Massachusetts. Cheng alleges that when he attempted to complete his degree from Massachusetts, USSA improperly required him to re-enroll, and then informed him that the degree requirements had changed.

         The complaint alleges that USSA engaged in unfair and deceptive business practices in violation of Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 93A. Specifically, it alleges that USSA misled Cheng about the requirements for its degree program, and that Cheng relied on those misrepresentations by continuing to pay tuition to USSA. It further alleges that as a result of USSA's actions, Cheng lost, among other things, years of work, his ability to obtain a degree without starting from scratch, tuition, and the loss of income associated with pursuing a degree. The complaint also alleges common-law claims for breach of contract, unjust enrichment, and fraudulent inducement.

         Defendant has moved to dismiss the complaint for lack of personal jurisdiction pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(2) and for forum non conveniens.[1] For the following reasons, the motion to dismiss for lack of personal jurisdiction will be granted.

         I. Background

         A. Factual Background

         Unless otherwise noted, the following facts are undisputed or presented as stated in the complaint.

         The United States Sports Academy, Inc. (“USSA”) is a private online educational institution organized and incorporated under the laws of Alabama. (Compl. ¶¶ 2, 4; Rosandich Aff. ¶¶ 1-3). It is regionally accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges to award baccalaureate, master's, and doctoral degrees. (Rosandich Aff. ¶ 1; Pl. Mem. Ex. 1).[2]

         USSA offers a “Distance Learning Program” that enables students to complete the entire curriculum for their degrees away from campus. (Rosandich Aff. ¶ 3). Its website touts the advantages of that program: “The Academy's Distance Learning Program offers students the flexibility to take courses and complete degrees without leaving their homes or jobs. Students can complete their courses ANY time, ANY place and at ANY pace.” (Pl. Mem. Ex. 2). USSA provides that flexibility to its students by “deliver[ing degrees] online in an asynchronous environment. This means professors and students do not have to be online at the same time for learning to take place or assignments to be completed.” (Id.). Students access all online courses through a website that offers them 24-hour access to their coursework. (Id.).

         According to USSA, its officers direct, control, and coordinate the school's activities from its corporate headquarters and administrative offices in Daphne, Alabama. (Rosandich Aff. ¶¶ 4, 10).[3] USSA pays no taxes in Massachusetts, has no registered agent in the state, and does not maintain a Massachusetts telephone number or address. (Id.).

         According to USSA, it does not actively solicit business in Massachusetts. (Rosandich Aff. ¶ 6; cf. Compl. ¶ 2). USSA also asserts that as of January 10, 2019, it had only two Massachusetts-based students, neither of whom is seeking a degree. (Rosandich Aff. ¶ 9).

         Kuan Cheng is formerly a resident of Alabama, now living in Massachusetts. (Compl. ¶ 1; Rosandich Aff. ¶ 8). In 2008, while in Alabama, Cheng enrolled in USSA's doctorate program in the field of sports management. (Compl. ¶ 3; Rosandich Aff. ¶¶ 7-8).[4] At the time of his enrollment, that degree required, among other things, passing a comprehensive examination. (Compl. ¶¶ 6-7). He had ten years from his initial enrollment in which to complete his degree requirements. (Id. ¶ 14).

         Between 2008 and 2010, Cheng completed 42 credits of coursework, most of which while living in Alabama. (Compl. ¶ 10; Rosandich Aff. ¶ 8).[5]

         In 2009, USSA changed the degree requirements for Cheng's doctorate program. (Compl. ¶¶ 6-7). Accordingly, he was given the option to change his degree requirement from a comprehensive examination to a portfolio requirement. (Id.).[6] He accepted that offer by submitting a catalog change request form, which was approved by the admissions department on February 2, 2010. (Id. ¶ 7). The admissions department then enrolled him in the 2009 student cohort with a portfolio requirement and assigned him a portfolio advisor. (Id. ¶¶ 8-9).

         To satisfy his portfolio requirement, Cheng was required, among other things, to complete an experiential-education component consisting of a “mentorship, ” essentially an internship, in the field. (Compl. ¶ 11; Rosandich Aff. ¶ 8; see also Pl. Mem. Ex. 1).[7] In March 2010, he registered for that mentorship requirement, to be completed at a church in New York. (Compl. ¶ 11; Rosandich Aff. ¶ 8).

         Cheng worked on his portfolio over the source of several years. (Compl. ¶¶ 10-12). All of his progress was submitted to and approved by his portfolio advisor, with the exception of a few papers. (Id. ¶ 12).[8]

         Some time between 2010 and 2015, Cheng moved to Massachusetts, and took a break from the doctorate program while earning a master's degree in acupuncture there. (Id. ¶¶ 1, 15). He alleges that in 2016, he attempted to resume work on his doctorate degree, because he was aware that he would need to complete his program requirements within ten years of his initial USSA enrollment. (Id. ¶ 16). However, when he tried to log on to USSA's online course management platform he was unable to do so. (Id.). He contends that he immediately contacted USSA about the issue, and was told that he had been removed from enrollment, and that he would need to re-enroll if he was still interested in pursuing his degree. (Id. ¶ 17).

         According to Cheng, he submitted an application to re-enroll. (Id.). He received an email from a USSA employee confirming receipt of his re-enrollment application. (Id. ¶ 18). That e-mail stated, among other things, that he would be required to take a comprehensive examination in order to complete his degree requirements. (Id.). He responded to that e-mail explaining the history of his degree requirements. (Id. ¶ 19). The USSA employee agreed to look into the issue and get back to him. (Id.).

         On February 17, 2016, Cheng received an acceptance of his re-enrollment application from a USSA admissions counselor, signed by the dean of academic affairs. (Id. ¶ 20). That acceptance referred to USSA's 2008 course catalog. (Id.). The admissions counselor later clarified that Cheng was enrolled in the 2009, not 2008, catalog, with its corresponding portfolio requirement. (Id.).

         Cheng alleges that in May 2017, he was again unable to access his USSA online course management account. Upon investigation, he learned that his ...


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