Paul L. Caron

Thursday, March 10, 2022

D.C. Circuit Revives COVID Tuition Refund Lawsuits Against American, George Washington Universities

Inside Higher Ed, Appeals Court Revives COVID Lawsuits Against American, George Washington Universities:

Two separate lawsuits against American University and George Washington University have new life after an appeals court revived cases that allege both institutions violated contractual obligations to students when they shifted to online instruction in early 2020 at the onset of the coronavirus pandemic [Qureshi v. American University, No. 21-7064 (D.C. Cir. Mar. 8, 2022); Shaffer v. George Washington University, No. 21-7040 (D.C. Cir. Mar. 8, 2022)].

At the core of the issue is the refusal of both universities to refund students’ tuition and fees. The plaintiffs allege that both universities had a contractual commitment to provide in-person education and should have offered at least partial tuition and fee refunds for students forced into online classes. Plaintiffs in both cases are seeking class action status for their lawsuits.

The lawsuits against American University and GWU are just two among dozens of similar suits filed by students and families since 2020, which have had various outcomes in courts across the United States.

In a partial reversal of the lower court’s decision to dismiss the case, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. circuit found that while the plaintiffs had not proven that the universities breached specific contractual obligations, the complaints “plausibly allege that the Universities breached implied-in-fact contracts” to provide in-person education and access to certain campus activities. One such example on the latter point was the lack of access to American University’s sports complex during the early days of the pandemic, which the court noted is open to use for any registered student at AU.

“We therefore reverse the District Courts’ dismissals of Plaintiffs’ implied-in-fact contract claims with respect to tuition and some—but not all—of the fees at issue,” Judge Harry T. Edwards wrote. “We note that the Universities will likely have compelling arguments to offer that the pandemic and resulting government shutdown orders discharged their duties to perform these alleged promises. However, because the Universities have not raised any such defense before this court, we leave the issue to the District Courts to resolve in the first instance.” ...

Hundreds of similar lawsuits have been filed across the U.S. seeking tuition and fee refunds after the coronavirus pandemic forced colleges to abruptly shift to online education en masse. But the results are often as varied as the cases themselves. While many cases have been dismissed, some institutions have ended up on the hook for millions of dollars owed to students.

Columbia University, for example, reached a $12.5 million settlement in November with students who sued for failure to refund fees when Columbia pivoted to online classes in the spring of 2020. Despite the settlement, Columbia denied any allegations of wrongdoing.

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