Universities Face Class-Action Suits Due to Switch to Online Classes

Over 70 US universities have faced class-action lawsuits filed over the past few months by students seeking tuition refunds and housing reimbursements. Many are seeking this financial restitution for the Spring 2020 semester that was disrupted by COVID-19.

Midway through March this year, universities and colleges across the country shut down their campuses, halted academic activities, and resorted to converting instructional academic environments to online learning. Many also evicted students from on-campus housing. All these actions were taken to comply with the social distancing protocols imposed in response to the COVID-19 pandemic and protect the health of students and staff. 

Students involved in the suits argue that they were not refunded money for the costs of on-campus housing, dining, and other on-campus services. Additionally, some also argue that the quality of online education does not measure up to that of in-class education and that tuition for the disrupted semester should also be refunded.

One Example: Duke University

Two Duke University students filed separate class-action lawsuits, both of which have since been voluntarily dismissed. Each suit was filed against the school due to its decision to move all courses online part way through its Spring 2020 semester.

According to one of the students’ claims, the defendant—the university—promises that students will be given a “comprehensive academic experience.” Instead, what they received from the university was something “far less,” the complaint stated.

After its closure on March 10, when it both shut down campus services and evicted students from on-campus housing, Duke University continued to charge students the full price of tuition, although they reimbursed graduating students for housing costs and offered other students a prorated credit for their next semester.

According to the complaint, Zoom-powered online learning represents a breach of contract. Using such platforms meant that students no longer received what they had paid for, including program resources, core facilities, personal interactions with faculty and peers, access to the university’s library system, and the school gym. The complaint also alleged that class lectures were reduced to pre-recorded lessons, resulting in a drop in academic quality. 

The complaint alleged that an opportunity to have personal interactions with professors of the university who are “world-renowned” is why education at Duke is preferred. However, this advantage was taken away, with communications reduced to emails with lengthy response times.

Additionally, personal interactions with peers and classmates also constitutes another aspect of Duke education that enriches learning experiences. The claim alleged that student organizations and participation in student activities were also disbanded.

The lawsuit sought recovery of compensatory damages with reimbursement of legal expenses and fees. 

Duke University places significant emphasis in its admissions message on the several benefits of the campus experience and healthy interactions with its staff and faculty. The university’s marketing campaign mentions the opportunity to work with “some of the world’s brightest minds,” which includes stipends for students to dine with faculty members to establish and foster lasting relationships. The marketing material mentions the “kinetic energy” of relationships, with learning spaces fully equipped with start-of-the-art technology.

Yet, despite these claims and arguments, both class actions against Duke were dismissed.

Likely Defenses for Universities

Their dismissal was at least partially caused by a North Carolina law that was signed two weeks before the cases were dropped. This law provides immunity to North Carolina colleges and universities that halted in-person services due to COVID-19.

Other states may follow suit as lawsuits continue against other universities. Without such protections, now colleges and universities may face a double legal threat, as they can likely be held responsible if they fail to implement sufficient safety measures in on-campus classes, as well as if they send students home and fail to provide in-person resources.

Even without immunity being granted, many universities will likely provide adequate defenses citing either contract law, arguing that they did not fail to provide education and that in-person classes were not specifically promised, or impossibility of performance due to the virus. Unless in-person, on-campus classes were specifically promised in a school’s contract, any similar class-action lawsuit probably isn’t likely to succeed under current circumstances.