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Judge Refuses to Toss Lawsuits by Students Seeking Tuition Refunds

July 16, 2021 by Tom Ramstack

WASHINGTON — In a ruling with implications for the upcoming fall semester, a federal judge in Washington, D.C. last week refused to dismiss lawsuits by college students seeking tuition refunds.

The students want at least part of their tuition and fees returned from the Spring 2020 semester, when Howard and Catholic universities switched to online education due to the COVID-19 shutdown.

The students say they were deprived of the in-person teaching and university life that they paid for through tuition.

“The online learning options being offered to Howard students are subpar in practically every aspect, from the lack of facilities, materials and access to faculty,” says the class action lawsuit filed by Howard University student Isaiah Payne. “Students have been deprived of the opportunity for collaborative learning and in-person dialogue, feedback and critique. The remote learning options are in no way the equivalent of the in-person education that Plaintiff and the putative class members contracted and paid for.”

The case comes at a time some schools from elementary level through college are reconsidering options for online education as the Delta variant of COVID-19 surges, doubling illnesses and deaths in some states.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate there are 1,000 new cases of COVID-19 every hour in the U.S.

The Delta variant is 50% more transmissible than the Alpha variant that first struck the United States. As a result, younger persons — such as college students — are getting the virus at a higher rate than in 2020.

Many schools were planning an unrestricted reopening until the pandemic made a comeback.

The students in the Washington, D.C. lawsuits argue their universities’ course catalogs falsely implied they would be given access to in-person learning and campus life.

The only claim U.S. District Judge Dabney L. Friedrich dismissed was for conversion against Howard. Conversion refers to taking other persons’ property with an intent to permanently deprive them of it.

However, Friedrich said the universities could not get the other claims dismissed based on the “reservations of rights” they listed in their course catalogs. The reservations say the courses were subject to change, depending on various conditions.

“This court questions whether the universities’ reservation of rights enumerating certain categories of potential changes, plus a catch-all category, permits the universities to make any and all changes imaginable to course programming and educational services,” the judge wrote in her ruling.

She added, “It likely would be unreasonable, for example, to interpret the reservation clauses so broadly as to permit the universities to decide in the middle of a semester to remove all professors and impose a model of self-directed learning.”

The federal court ruling is likely to provide a precedent for numerous other lawsuits by university students nationwide seeking to recover tuition when their in-person learning disappeared.

Until now, most of the other lawsuits were thrown out. Lawsuits against University of Pittsburgh, Temple University and the University of Pennsylvania were dismissed when judges disagreed that their contracts with students could be interpreted as promises of in-person education.

In a student lawsuit against Harvard University, U.S. District Judge Indira Talwani sided with the university when she wrote that “Spring 2020 was not a normal time.”

On similar facts, Friedrich said the “nature and scope” of the universities’ statements about courses implied they made promises they could not keep.

“At least as alleged in the complaints, however, the plaintiffs have plausibly stated a claim for breach of an implied contract,” Friedrich wrote.

So far, no universities have announced plans to return exclusively to online education for the upcoming school year. However, several are offering it as an option.

In a typical example of the migration toward online learning, Texas Woman’s College recently reported that in 2019, 70% of the university’s undergraduate students preferred in-person classes. The figure dropped to 45% this year.

The CDC last week recommended that in-person teaching resume but with at least 3 feet of social distancing. In addition, students, teachers and staff who are not fully vaccinated should wear masks indoors.

The lawsuits are listed as Payne v. Howard University, case number 1:20-cv-03792, and Montesano v. Catholic University Of America, case number 1:20-cv-01496, in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.

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