Paul L. Caron

Wednesday, February 2, 2022

COVID-19 Tuition Refund Fights Heat Up In Appeals Courts

National Law Journal, 'Watching the Outcome Like a Hawk': COVID-19 Tuition Refund Fights Heat Up in Appeals Courts:

After failures in district courts, a handful of students have taken their COVID-19 tuition refund fights to appellate courts in cases that are being closely watched by the higher education community.

Many of the lawsuits, alleging universities breached contracts by shifting to virtual courses while charging in-person prices, were dismissed by district court judges, though results have been mixed. Claims that survived tended to be those seeking compensation for specific fees, such as student activities promised but not delivered during campus closures, observers say.

No circuit courts have issued decisions on the matters yet, but recent oral arguments hint that the idea schools overcharged for remote learning has weight with some judges, said Stetson University Law School professor Peter Lake.

“If you would have called me a month ago, I probably would have said the general trend is unmistakable, the tuition cases are dying … and the exception would be where there was a very specific promise to a particular class of people to deliver something,” Lake said. “It may well be that the circuit upholds the dismissals … but I’m sensing there could be change.”

“I am noticing that there is a certain amount of energy at this moment that’s gathering around this idea of unjust enrichment,” he said. “That’s why we’re watching the outcome like a hawk in this D.C. case because that could be a game changer.”

Lake says unjust-enrichment claims may have solid footing. Under unjust enrichment, students contend that in the absence of contracts, universities unfairly profited by switching to inferior remote learning. Those claims would only hold, however, if judges determined there was no breach of contract.

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