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Background

This question was sparked by a question about firing an employee with a B.A. from a degree mill

To my knowledge, using protected post nominal letters that are related to a professional organization, like M.D. or P.Eng. are enforced by state/provincial organizations that can take legal action against anyone using that title improperly. But with BA, BS, BBA, or others there is no organization that protects these, so what are the legal ramifications here?

Scenario:

In this scenario, HR discovered that an employee had obtained the BA from an unaccredited degree mill. It isn't stated in the original question whether the person used their post nominal letters on anything, so I'm proposing this as a separate hypothetical scenario where they used B.A everywhere their name appears. Would using the post-nominal letters, B.A. be illegal in anyway? Would it give legal grounds for firing? What about suing for damages against a consultant? What are the legal ramifications here?

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  • 5
    In what jurisdiction? Employment law varies greatly around the world, as do regulations around the use of academic titles. May 4 at 23:01
  • 1
    in at will states? just say "you're fired."
    – Trish
    May 4 at 23:37
  • 3
    To further Nate's point, in Germany this is highly regulated. The U.S. is rather lax. There is lots of middle ground.
    – ohwilleke
    May 4 at 23:38
  • 2
    This is a question that is fundamentally unanswerable without reference to jurisdiction. De minimis, you want a comparative analysis of BC and Washington state labor law. Could be Idaho/Alberta, just don't compare with Montana. The basic question is, do you have to even have "legal grounds" to fire?
    – user6726
    May 5 at 4:41
  • 1
    MD is a degree granted by a medical school, not a sign of membership in a professional organization. And having an MD does not by itself entitle the holder to practice medicine.
    – phoog
    May 6 at 4:18
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To my knowledge, using protected post nominal letters that are related to a professional organization, like M.D. or P.Eng. are enforced by state/provincial organizations that can take legal action against anyone using that title improperly. But with BA, BS, BBA, or others there is no organization that protects these, so what are the legal ramifications here?

In the U.S., there is no generalized governmental regulation of degree quality. There are private accreditation bodies, and in some fields, a degree from an accredited institution from a body that the government recognizes as legitimate is necessary to obtain licensure.

This said, using post-nominal letters for an undergraduate degree would be a "yellow flag" in the U.S. and is rarely done (and when done is probably most often done for a Bachelor of Fine Arts, BFA, which presents particularly tricky questions of what is a legitimate degree or institution).

Likewise, one would need to distinguish between "degree mill" degrees and honorary degrees awarded by institutions to recognize someone's non-educational life achievements, rather than their earned degree work.

More often, in the U.S., a degree would be listed only in a resume or website biography.

Of course, this is strictly a matter of regional custom. In Tanzania, for example, it is common to use as many post-nominal letters are possible, often including post-nominal letters for a high school diploma and short certification classes (e.g. CPR training), as well as a primary professional certification, and it is common practice to include both a post-nominal professional certification and the degree qualifying one for it, rather than only the former as in the U.S. (e.g. "J.D., Esq.", rather than merely "Esq.")

Would using the post-nominal letters, B.A. be illegal in anyway?

If the person didn't actually get the degree from the degree mill, it would be fraud, but if they did get a degree, even from a dubious institution, it would be legal in the U.S.

Note that this is just how the law happens to be right now. The U.S. Fair Trade Commission (FTC) or Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), or a state deceptive trade practices act, could easily make it illegal to claim a degree from a degree mill without full disclosure that it is a degree mill (the law can't completely bar truthful speech under the 1st Amendment in the U.S.) by defining what sort of accreditation an institution must have to qualify to be described by an unexplained representation.

Would it give legal grounds for firing?

The vast majority of non-union, private sector, non-senior management employment in the U.S. (outside Montana) is employment at will. An employee at will can be fired at any time for any reason that is not a violation of a discrimination law (which this reason would not be).

If an employee were in a protected class and alleged discriminatory firing based upon membership in that class, and the employer asserted that the diploma mill degree was the reason for firing, which on its face is non-discriminatory and not based upon a protected class, a finder of fact would have to determine if the diploma mill degree basis for firing was sincerely the reason that the employee was fired, or was merely a pretext for an actual illegal discriminatory reason. If it was the sincere reason for firing someone rather than a discriminatory reason, the employer would not have employment discrimination liability.

The only ramification of firing someone without cause is that they are entitled to unemployment insurance benefits, which someone fired for cause, or someone who voluntarily quits, is not entitled to receive.

But the discovery that someone has a degree from a degree mill, while not illegal, might still be considered misleading enough to constitute good cause for firing, so unemployment eligibility if someone were fired for this reason in the U.S. (outside Montana which does not have employment at will and requires severance payments if someone if fired without sufficient grounds to do so) would be 50-50.

Montana

In Montana, in contrast, the Montana Wrongful Discharge from Employment Act passed in 1987 sets forth certain rights and remedies with respect to wrongful discharge. The act declares a discharge is wrongful for employees who would be employees at will in other states, only if:

  1. It was in retaliation for the employee’s refusal to violate public policy or for reporting a violation of public policy;

  2. The discharge was not for good cause and the employee had completed the employer’s probationary period of employment; or

  3. The employer violated the express provisions of its own written personnel policy.

An employee’s failure to adequately perform the task for which they were employed, an employee’s negligence to working lawfully, the employer’s company being dissolved or the interruption of business for any other reason are all lawful excuses for firing an employee.

In Montana, for purposes of this statute:

"Good cause" means reasonable job-related grounds for dismissal based on a failure to satisfactorily perform job duties, disruption of the employer's operation, or other legitimate business reason. The legal use of a lawful product by an individual off the employer's premises during nonworking hours is not a legitimate business reason, unless the employer acts within the provisions of 39-2-313(3) or (4).

It isn't obvious if an employee representing that the employee has a degree mill diploma in an application that is not fully disclosed would or would not qualify "good cause" so it would be determined on a case by case basis under the relevant case law (if any).

The remedy for wrongful discharge in Montana under the state act alone is a severance payment, rather than reinstatement or the greater damages awardable in a discrimination lawsuit.

What about suing for damages against a consultant?

Not clear what is being asked in this question. Who is the "consultant" in relation to whom?

If the "employee" were actually an independent contractor (i.e. a "consultant") for the "employer", the "employer" would not have grounds to sue the independent contractor based upon the degree representation (if factually true, even though it was deceptive) and the independent contractor would probably have grounds to sue for breach of contract if fired for this reason (unless the contract has a termination without cause provision). An independent contractor fired without cause is not entitled to unemployment insurance in the U.S. in most cases, outside the pandemic specific unemployment program for gig workers. Also, the "employer" would be hard pressed to show damages from the misleading representation.

Of course, there would also be exceptions. Under a variety of circumstances, when there are damages (e.g. if a client of the employer cancels its profitable contract with the employer upon learning that the employee providing high end consulting services to it had a degree from a degree mill) even a factually true statement that is misleading can be actionable. Among the circumstances where this can happen are:

  • State deceptive trade practices act often raise a higher bar.

  • Representations made to someone in a "confidential relationship" with the employee (e.g. a close relative, a parishioner at a church where the employee is a member of the clergy, a beneficiary of a trust where the employee is a trustee, etc.) are held to a higher standard.

  • Representations made in connection with the sale of securities (e.g. stocks and bonds of a business sold to a passive investor, in which the employee's credentials are listed in a way that tends to mislead) are held to a higher standard.

  • The employee actually knows that the employer has a misapprehension regarding where the employee got a degree (often degree mills have institution names that are confusingly similar to well respected colleges and universities) and fails to correct. For example, say that the employee got a bachelor of science in mathematics degree from "Columbia College" a for profit college in Aurora, Colorado, based upon three and a half years of "life experience" credit that wasn't even verified and three classes which 50 pages textbooks and an easy and short final exam with half a dozen basic high school level math questions each. But at an interview, the employer says, immediately after the employee names the institution from which the employee dot the degree, "so how did you like living in Manhattan for four years" (where the employee never lived, but where prestigious Columbia University is located). The employee might have a common law duty to disclose that the interviewer was confused.

On the other hand, there is a "shame on you, shame on me" aspect to the law of misrepresentation, where the employer can be faulted for failure to exercise due diligence regarding a point that is material to the employer.

Also, some sort of damages claim would be only authorized if the misleading statement was material. If the employee is a maid in a hotel, or flips burgers, it isn't material. If the employee is a management consultant who provides services on behalf of the employer, or a degree is listed as a job requirement in the posting for the position, it probably is material.

If the "consultant" were the person who helped the employee get the degree mill degree, or advised the employee to use it, the employee would have grounds to sue the consultant only if the consultant engaged in some sort of deceptive trade practice or misrepresentation in marketing the degree mill degree. It isn't impossible that such a suit could prevail (often degree mills are misleading themselves to potential purchasers of degrees).

But the OP has no facts that suggest this possibility and the degree mill probably has few assets from which a disgruntled consumer who prevails could collect.

Also, the degree mill would have a credible defense that it didn't claim accreditation from an institution that didn't accredit it (if true, not that often degree mills create bogus accreditation organizations to endorse them), and that the employee was not justified in relying on the belief that a degree obtained without doing real college quality work for a nominal price would be treated the same as a degree from an ordinary college with a respected accreditation body.

Comparative Law, In General

Some countries are much less lax about claims of degrees than the U.S.

For example, in Germany (and a number of neighboring central European countries like Austria and the Czech Republic) representations about degrees earned are highly regulated and it is usually both a crime and a tort to violate those regulations, and there have been a number of high profile cases of misrepresentations of this kind in business and among elected officials. This is in the context of an economy where almost every occupation (even, e.g., waiting tables in a restaurant in some places) requires a professional certification, regulation of business is more pervasive, and free speech protections are not as absolute.

In the 19th century and early 20th century, U.S. and U.K. legal protections for employees were weaker, and regulation of fraud was even more lax than it is today, so the likelihood of a legal remedy for any party in this situation was even smaller. Many countries in the developing world have levels of economic regulation, in practice at least, similar to the U.S. and U.K. in the 19th century.

Canada

Canada doesn't have employment at will for non-management, non-union, private sector employees who have been employed for at least twelve months, so the "unjust dismissal" analysis or wrongful dismissal analysis there would be different.

Federally regulated employers in Canada are subject to the "unjust dismissal" regimes below (which the grounds undefined for the most part and a reinstatement remedy possible), while other employees are entitled to remedies for wrongful dismissal (for which reinstatement is not a possible remedy). The federally regulated employees are:

  • Air transportation

  • Banks

  • Grain elevators, feed and seed mills, feed warehouses and grain-seed cleaning plants

  • First Nations Band Councils

  • Most federal Crown corporations, for example, Canada Post Corporation Port services, marine shipping, ferries, tunnels, canals, bridges and pipelines (oil and gas) that cross international or provincial borders

  • Radio and television broadcasting

  • Railways that cross provincial or international borders and some short-line railways

  • Road transportation services, including trucks and buses, that cross provincial or international borders

  • Telecommunications, such as, telephone, internet, telegraph and cable systems

  • Uranium mining and processing and atomic energy

The Canadian Unjust Dismissal statute is as follows:

Unjust Dismissal

240 (1) Subject to subsections (2) and 242(3.1), a person who has been dismissed and considers the dismissal to be unjust may make a complaint in writing to the Head if the employee

(a) has completed 12 consecutive months of continuous employment by an employer; and

(b) is not a member of a group of employees subject to a collective agreement.

(1.1) A person shall not make a complaint under subsection (1) if they have made a complaint that is based on substantially the same facts under either subsection 246.1(1) or 247.99(1), unless that complaint has been withdrawn.

(2) Subject to subsection (3), a complaint under subsection (1) shall be made within ninety days from the date on which the person making the complaint was dismissed.

(3) The Head may extend the period set out in subsection (2)

(a) if the Head is satisfied that a complaint was made in that period to a government official who had no authority to deal with the complaint but that the person making the complaint believed the official had that authority; or

(b) in any circumstances that are prescribed by regulation.

241 (1) If an employer dismisses a person described in subsection 240(1), the person who was dismissed or the Head may make a request in writing to the employer to provide a written statement giving the reasons for the dismissal, and any employer who receives such a request must provide the person who made the request with such a statement within 15 days after the request is made.

(2) On receipt of a complaint made under subsection 240(1), the Head must endeavour to assist the parties to the complaint to settle the complaint.

(3) If a complaint is not settled under subsection (2) within the period that the Head considers to be reasonable in the circumstances, the Head must, on the written request of the person who made the complaint that the complaint be referred to the Board, deliver to the Board the complaint made under subsection 240(1), any written statement giving the reasons for the dismissal provided under subsection (1) and any other statements or documents that the Head has that relate to the complaint.

(4) If the person who made the complaint does not reply to a written communication from the Head within a period that the Head considers to be reasonable in the circumstances and a period of at least 30 days, or any longer period that may be prescribed by regulation, have elapsed from the day on which the complaint was made, the Head may give written notice to the person who made the complaint that they have the period of 30 days, or any longer period that may be prescribed by regulation, set out in the notice to make a written request that the complaint be referred to the Board.

(5) Subject to the regulations, if the person who made the complaint does not, within the period set out in the notice, make a written request that the complaint be referred to the Board, the Head may deem the complaint to be withdrawn.

241.1 (1) If the Board is satisfied that the complainant must take measures before the Board may continue to deal with the complaint referred to it under subsection 241(3), it may, at any time, suspend consideration of the complaint, in whole or in part.

(2) If the Board suspends consideration of a complaint, the Board shall notify the complainant in writing and specify in the notice

(a) the measures that the complainant must take; and

(b) the period within which they must take those measures.

(3) The suspension ends when, in the Board’s opinion, the measures specified in the notice have been taken.

241.2 (1) The Board may reject a complaint referred to it under subsection 241(3), in whole or in part,

(a) if the Board is satisfied that

(i) the complaint is not within its jurisdiction,

(ii) the complaint is frivolous, vexatious or not made in good faith,

(iii) the complaint has been settled in writing between the employer and the complainant,

(iv) there are other means available to the complainant to resolve the subject matter of the complaint that the Board considers should be pursued, or

(v) the subject matter of the complaint has been adequately dealt with through recourse obtained before a court, tribunal, arbitrator or adjudicator; or

(b) if consideration of the complaint was suspended under subsection 241.1(1) and if, in the Board’s opinion, the measures specified in the notice under subsection 241.1(2) were not taken within the specified period.

(2) If the Board rejects a complaint, it shall notify the complainant in writing, with reasons.

(3) Subject to subsection (3.1), the Board, after a complaint has been referred to it, shall

(a) consider whether the dismissal of the person who made the complaint was unjust and render a decision thereon; and

(b) send a copy of the decision with the reasons therefor to each party to the complaint and to the Minister.

(3.1) No complaint shall be considered by the Board under subsection (3) in respect of a person if

(a) that person has been laid off because of lack of work or because of the discontinuance of a function; or

(b) a procedure for redress has been provided under Part I or Part II of this Act or under any other Act of Parliament.

(4) If the Board decides under subsection (3) that a person has been unjustly dismissed, the Board may, by order, require the employer who dismissed the person to

(a) pay the person compensation not exceeding the amount of money that is equivalent to the remuneration that would, but for the dismissal, have been paid by the employer to the person;

(b) reinstate the person in his employ; and

(c) do any other like thing that it is equitable to require the employer to do in order to remedy or counteract any consequence of the dismissal.

243 (1) Every order of the Board is final and shall not be questioned or reviewed in any court.

(2) No order shall be made, process entered or proceeding taken in any court, whether by way of injunction, certiorari, prohibition, quo warranto or otherwise, to question, review, prohibit or restrain the Board in any proceedings under section 242.

244 (1) Any person affected by an order of the Board under subsection 242(4), or the Head on the request of such a person, may, after 14 days from the day on which the order is made, or from the day provided in the order for compliance, whichever is later, file in the Federal Court a copy of the order, exclusive of reasons.

(2) On filing in the Federal Court under subsection (1), an order of the Board shall be registered in the Court and, when registered, has the same force and effect, and all proceedings may be taken in respect of it, as if the order were a judgment obtained in that Court.

245 For the purposes of this Division, the Governor in Council may make regulations

(a) defining the absences from employment that shall be deemed not to have interrupted continuity of employment;

(b) prescribing circumstances for the purposes of paragraph 240(3)(b);

(c) prescribing periods for the purposes of subsection 241(4);

(d) prescribing the circumstances under which a complaint is not to be deemed to be withdrawn under subsection 241(5); and

(e) prescribing the conditions that are to be met before a complaint may be deemed to be withdrawn under subsection 241(5).

246 (1) No civil remedy of an employee against his employer is suspended or affected by sections 240 to 245.

(2) Section 189 applies for the purposes of this Division.

The statute itself is vague concerning what constitutes "unjust dismissal".

Apart from federally regulated employees, in Canada, a private sector employer who is not federally regulated has the right to terminate a non-union employee in one of two ways:

a) for cause without notice (getting fired), without payment of a severance package.

b) termination without cause, after giving the employee reasonable notice or payment of severance package.

One of the main relevant statutes is Canada’s ESA (Employment Standards Act) (British Columbia's version is here). The operative section of the statute states:

Liability resulting from length of service

63 (1)After 3 consecutive months of employment, the employer becomes liable to pay an employee an amount equal to one week's wages as compensation for length of service.

(2)The employer's liability for compensation for length of service increases as follows:

(a)after 12 consecutive months of employment, to an amount equal to 2 weeks' wages;

(b)after 3 consecutive years of employment, to an amount equal to 3 weeks' wages plus one additional week's wages for each additional year of employment, to a maximum of 8 weeks' wages.

(3)The liability is deemed to be discharged if the employee

(a)is given written notice of termination as follows:

(i)one week's notice after 3 consecutive months of employment;

(ii)2 weeks' notice after 12 consecutive months of employment;

(iii)3 weeks' notice after 3 consecutive years of employment, plus one additional week for each additional year of employment, to a maximum of 8 weeks' notice;

(b)is given a combination of written notice under subsection (3) (a) and money equivalent to the amount the employer is liable to pay, or

(c)terminates the employment, retires from employment, or is dismissed for just cause.

(4)The amount the employer is liable to pay becomes payable on termination of the employment and is calculated by

(a)totalling all the employee's weekly wages, at the regular wage, during the last 8 weeks in which the employee worked normal or average hours of work,

(b)dividing the total by 8, and

(c)multiplying the result by the number of weeks' wages the employer is liable to pay.

(5)For the purpose of determining the termination date under this section, the employment of an employee who is laid off for more than a temporary layoff is deemed to have been terminated at the beginning of the layoff.

(6)If, after 3 consecutive months of employment, an employee gives notice of termination to the employer and the employer terminates the employment during that notice period, the employer is liable to pay the employee an amount equal to the lesser of

(a)an amount in money equal to the wages the employee would have earned for the remainder of the notice period, or

(b)an amount in money equal to the amount the employer is liable to pay on termination.

Like "unjust dismissal", the term "just cause" for a dismissal is not well defined in the statute itself, although case law and regulations may provide further guidance.

The act prohibits misleading statements by an employer in hiring, but doesn't expressly regulate misleading statements by an employee in hiring.

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  • Great answer thank you for your work!
    – inund8
    May 5 at 16:37
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In the United States, assuming the following

  • a degree is not a requirement to hold a professional license (such as a medical degree); and this does not apply to the situations where a degree is a requirement to apply for an accreditation (such as entering a graduate program)
  • a job application did not explicitly claim that a degree was from an institution accredited with a particular named accreditation authority (e.g. "American ACME Fixers Society of ACME Sciences")

there is no distinction between an "accredited" and a non-accredited degree. Accreditation is a stamp of approval at best. The perceived quality of the education rests largely on the reputation of the institution which issued the degree.

If it is discovered that a person's degree is sub par, but they already hold a professional license, it may put their license in question. But as long as they continue to hold the license, they can claim to have it. If the license lapses, then it would be fraudulent to claim to have it. It would also be fraudulent to claim to have a degree from an accredited institution if the institution is not accredited.

Again, because most of the universities in the United States are private institutions, the degrees they issue rely on accreditation in only a very narrow set of circumstances. The merit of a degree derives from the institution's name. If, for example, Yale decides to withdraw from all undergraduate accreditation processes, it would undermine the accreditation authorities, administering those processes, much more than it would undermine Yale.

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  • 2
    Indeed on the last bit. Many moons ago, my Ivy-league engineering program got threatened with having their accreditation revoked because it didn't check all the boxes for the then quite-prescriptive evaluation (must teach X, Y, Z, ...). And the university had the backing of surveys of graduates and their employers that they were turning out strong engineers. Turns out the accreditation body backed down, and ultimately changed the accreditation goals and process.
    – Jon Custer
    May 6 at 14:30

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