Lawsuits Filed Against Higher Education Institutions Related to COVID-19

April 20, 2020
Firm Publication

Since the last week in March, at least six putative class action suits seeking refunds of fees paid by students for room and board, parking, extra-curricular activities, and in some cases, tuition, due to the students’ pandemic-related evacuation of their on-campus housing and transition to online-only instruction have been filed against universities in federal district courts across the country (specifically in the Districts of Arizona, Colorado, and South Carolina, the Northern District of Indiana, and the Western District of Virginia). While these cases are in their infancy, they highlight several issues for all higher education institutions to consider.

Refunds Sought for Tuition and Fees        

Four of the cases are seeking refunds of tuition, not only fees. In the cases against the University of Colorado-Boulder, the University of Miami, Purdue University, and Drexel University, plaintiffs are seeking a refund of tuition on the basis that they paid for an experiential, residential educational experience that is not replicated by an education online. The complaint in Church v. Purdue University has the most developed allegations to date in support of this theory, citing a 2017 study published by the Brookings Institution to support its allegation that “students learn less in the online setting.” The Church complaint also alleges that online-only instruction will preclude the named plaintiff from completing his senior year engineering project of constructing an airplane.

Several of the complaints allege subclasses based on the type of fees paid by class members (room, board, parking, etc.), presumably in an attempt to more easily establish commonality and typicality of claims as is required by Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 23.

Lawsuits Filed Despite Credit Issued by Universities

In several of these cases, the defendant universities have already offered some restitution in the form of credit. For example, the Church complaint alleges that Purdue University offered a $750 credit to students who vacated residence halls and, with respect to meal plans, offered credits for future meals. The plaintiffs in these suits allege that the credits offered by the defendant universities are insufficient and seek pro-rated refunds.

Timing of Response by Universities

These complaints allege varying levels of speed and robustness of the defendants’ response to the pandemic. The complaint against Liberty University, for example, criticizes the university’s response to the pandemic, noting that Liberty University informed its students that they could remain on campus. On the other end of the spectrum, the complaint in Church v. Purdue University praises Purdue’s transition to online classes and encouragement of students not to return to campus after spring break as “responsible decisions.” In all cases, the defendants’ handling of campus closure matters less – for the purposes of the lawsuits – than the universities’ failures to provide refunds to students who were urged or felt personally compelled to vacate campus.

Jurisdiction   

While all of the cases are filed in federal court, two of the cases are not filed in the district where the university is located, but rather in the district where the named plaintiff lives. The universities in these cases – University of Miami and Drexel University – may defend based on lack of jurisdiction or seek a change of venue, but it is noteworthy that the plaintiffs’ firms do not apparently see filing in the district where the university is located as required.

Breach of Contract and Unjust Enrichment

All of the cases allege breach of contract and unjust enrichment. Some of the complaints quote from the university’s website in an attempt to buttress their claims. For example, the complaint in Dixon v. University of Miami includes a screenshot of the university’s website with the following language: “Living on campus opens a world of interaction with other students, faculty, and staff members in many social, developmental and academic activities. It’s a special time of learning and maturing; a time to be a member of the University family.” Two of the complaints also include counts alleging conversion.

Two law firms are responsible for five of the six complaints, and one of these firms is actively soliciting on its website for additional plaintiffs. Three of the complaints are fairly tailored to the specifics of the named plaintiffs and/or defendant universities, while three of the complaints are more generic in their allegations.

We would not be surprised to see more cases of this type filed in the coming weeks. Our firm is monitoring these cases and stands ready to discuss any questions or concerns raised by this new flavor of litigation.

The cases are:

  • Carpey v. University of Colorado, Boulder, through its Board, The Board of Regents of the University of Colorado, No. 1:20-cv-01064 (D. Colo.)
  • Church v. Purdue University and the Board of Trustees of Purdue University, No. 4:20-cv-00025 (N.D. Ind.)
  • Dixon v. University of Miami, No. 2:20-cv-1348-BHH (D. S.C.)
  • Rickenbaker v. Drexel University, No. 2:20-cv-1358-BHH (D. S.C.)
  • Rosenkrantz, et al. v. Arizona Board of Regents, No. 2:20-cv-00613-JZB (D. Ariz.)
  • Student A v. Liberty University, Inc., No. 6:20-cv-00023 (W.D. Va.)