In light of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, most colleges and universities have moved to online learning for the remainder of the school year with the potential for continuing in to the Fall semester. Schools have taken varying positions on refunding tuition and fees. Over the past several weeks, we have seen an accelerating number of student-filed class action lawsuits requesting partial reimbursement for tuition, fees, and, less frequently, room and board. As of the publication of this alert, more than 26 such lawsuits have been filed.
As most schools that are the subject of such lawsuits already have reimbursed—or promised to reimburse—students for a portion of their Spring semester room and board, the lawsuits have tended to focus on requesting pro-rated tuition discounts and reimbursement for certain fees or challenging the method for pro-ration. The students assert that there is a difference in value between in-person and remote instruction, and that their universities should remit them the difference. The students also claim that certain fees designated as supporting items, such as student activities, student health services, and other on-campus amenities, should be refunded in part. The contention: that the student’s ability to benefit from the things the fees support is greatly limited or eliminated because the student is no longer physically present on campus.
The lawsuits all focus on contract claims, although most also include an unjust enrichment cause of action. A few of the complaints also contain conversion claims. The students bringing the suits rarely point to a specific document that constitutes the contract they allege their universities breached. Instead, they simply state that the students paid tuition and fees in return for an in-person university experience they did not receive.
These lawsuits appear to be coming primarily from a handful of law firms. Anastopoulo Law Firm, LLC; Bursor & Fisher P.A.; DiCello Levitt Gutzler LLC.; and/or Hagens Berman Sobol Shapiro LLP serve as counsel for the plaintiffs’ in two-thirds of the cases filed so far.
Colleges and universities that have moved to remote instruction due to the coronavirus pandemic should exercise care in their public- and student-facing communications—regardless of whether students already have filed a lawsuit against them. Some communications sent by administrators, while likely sent as a simple expression of empathy for students during the pandemic, have been characterized in complaints as admissions that students are receiving an inferior experience off-campus. Further complicating matters, colleges and universities must face challenges to their past decisions while simultaneously engaging in the complicated and uncertain decision-making regarding the operation of Fall schooling.
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This alert is a periodic publication of Ballard Spahr LLP and is intended to notify recipients of new developments in the law. It should not be construed as legal advice or legal opinion on any specific facts or circumstances. The contents are intended for general informational purposes only, and you are urged to consult your own attorney concerning your situation and specific legal questions you have.