The Iowa attorney general's office on Thursday filed a lawsuit against La'James International College, alleging the cosmetology school engages in deceptive, omissive and unfair practices.
"What many students experience is a school with extraordinary turnover of instructors resulting in instructorless classrooms and inconsistent instruction, lack of access to practice their skills and, ultimately, an institution that treats them more like free labor than students," the lawsuit, filed in Polk County District Court by the Consumer Protection Division, states.
"Indeed, through their tuition students seemingly pay La'James for the privilege of working for the company."
-Messenger photo by Peter Kaspari
La’James International College’s Fort Dodge site is one of six in Iowa. The Iowa attorney general’s office has filed a suit accusing the business of consumer fraud.
Attempts to reach La'James owner Cynthia Becher, of Fort Dodge, were unsuccessful Thursday.
In addition to Becher, other named defendants are La'James College of Hairstyling Inc. of Fort Dodge, Travis Ltd., M&C Beauty School Inc., Tiffany Ltd., R&R Construction Co., and Lyndi Ltd.
A La'James employee answering the phone at the Fort Dodge site said questions should be directed to Amber Scurtz, Fort Dodge La'James college administrator. She was not available for comment.
Attempts to contact an attorney for the college were also unsuccessful Thursday.
The lawsuit alleges La'James "impedes student completion of required skills training, forces students to perform janitorial services, keeps shoddy records that leaves students not knowing how many hours of training they have completed or how many hours remain prior to program completion, and causes students to doubt whether upon graduation they will be prepared and capable of entering their chosen profession."
La'James International College, which first opened in Fort Dodge in 1966, also operates cosmetology and massage schools and salons in Cedar Falls, Cedar Rapids, Davenport, Johnston and Iowa City, and has one location each in Illinois and Nebraska.
"La'James is more akin to a workplace than an educational institution as students are pressured to sell products and only receive credit for completing required services on paying customers," the lawsuit states. "Instead of permitting practice skills to be performed on mannequins as allowed at most other cosmetology schools, La'James requires students to recruit their own families, friends, or others as paying customers when walk-in client numbers are insufficient."
The lawsuit alleges that the college "understaffs and overworks instructors," leading to instructor shortages.
The college also requires students to perform janitorial duties such as cleaning floors and doing laundry, according to the lawsuit.
The lawsuit claims the college requires students to complete their instruction within an "arbitrary completion deadline set by the company" - a time frame not required by law.
Students are charged extra for each hour of instruction past the completion deadline, it said.
La'James charges from $4,750 to $18,660 in tuition, depending on the selected program, according to the lawsuit.
It said the corporate defendants had a combined net income of about $1.97 million in the fiscal year ending July 30, 2012.
"From January 1, 2010, through June 3, 2013, over 25 per cent of defendants' graduates did not graduate by the program completion deadline, resulting in those 254 graduates paying defendants a total of $631,201.04 in extra tuition, an average of $2,485.04 per student," the lawsuit said.
"Defendants mislead students about the costs of the education defendants offer, the amount of time required to complete defendants' programs, and the necessity to recruit customers for defendants," according to the lawsuit. "If students were aware of the above practices prior to enrollment a substantial number of them would not enroll at La'James."
The suit seeks a court order barring the defendants from misleading and concealing material information from students.
It also seeks civil penalties and unspecified reimbursement to students.
The college, along with Becher and Tracy LaDage, a cosmetologist, was fined $10,000 in July after an Iowa Board of Cosmetology Arts & Sciences concluded a hearing concerning the conditions at its sites in Iowa City and Johnston.
Allegations of 10 counts of sanitation and rule violations were satisfied with the civil penalty, according to the case report.
In addition to the $10,000 fine, the college was ordered to:
Make quarterly sanitation self-inspections at all six of its Iowa locations for a year;
Submit the required daily teaching logs on a quarterly basis for a year;
Submit client and appointment records quarterly, for a year.
Administrators of each of the six Iowa locations were ordered to take an additional two hours of continuing education "specific to Iowa Law and Sanitation."
All La'James instructors were ordered to submit proof of their completion of eight hours of "continuing education in Teaching Methodology" for the previous two years.