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COVID-19: Colleges and Universities Facing Class Action Lawsuits Over Refunds

The impacts of COVID-19 closures in the United States first began to materialize a few months ago, in mid-March 2020.  Since then, however, over fifty lawsuits have been filed against colleges and universities on behalf of students seeking refunds for tuition and fees due to campus closures in response to COVID-19.  The number of such filings is unlikely to stop with fifty:  U.S. News and World Report ranks approximately 1,400 schools that are regionally accredited and that offer four-year undergraduate degree programs.  The U.S. Department of Education, however, counts over 4,000 colleges and universities nationwide.

These lawsuits involve schools large and small, and from coast to coast.  Schools that already have been sued include major public universities like the University of California, Penn State University and Rutgers University.   Many private institutions have also been sued for tuition refunds within mere months of the COVID-19 outbreak, including the University of Southern California, New York University, Brown University, Columbia University, Johns Hopkins University, and Vanderbilt University.

Mostly styled as class actions (for more on class actions, click here) and grounded in breach of contract principles, the suits allege that the defendant schools promoted and advertised the value of an in-person, on-campus experience and thus should refund students for failing to deliver on that promise.  Tuition per semester can easily exceed $20,000 per student at private schools or for an out-of-state student at a major public university.   Some educational institutions have offered reimbursements for portions of room and board and some fees, but not for tuition, as most, if not all, of the defendant schools have maintained their faculty and staff and continued to offer alternative (primarily on-line) education through the spring semester.

Refund claims like these arising from a pandemic are unprecedented in recent times. These lawsuits present complex issues regarding class action lawsuits, to intricate legal theories involving breach of contract, unjust enrichment, and impossibility of performance.  Butler Snow attorneys have a wealth of experience in the defense of complex business and class action litigation, as well as representation of institutions of higher learning.