Various universities across the country are facing class action lawsuits amid the Coronavirus pandemic. Students claim that they are being unfairly burdened financially in response to the closures of on-campus learning. Many are seeking refunds for unused meal plans, dormitory services, and general loss of on-site learning. Class action lawsuits have been filed against public universities in Arizona, Michigan, Indiana, California, and Vermont. Private schools, such as Cornell University, Columbia University, and Drexel University, among others, are also facing such lawsuits.
The class action alleges that the universities breached their contracts to the students and have been unjustly enriched with tuition and room and board payments. Universities, in their defense, can argue that the pandemic has made it impracticable to keep campuses open and show that moving classes online has mitigated damages. They can also show that they are not unjustly enriched because they continue to pay faculty and staff during the pandemic.
When examining these issues, colleges and universities must remember that their relationship with the families enrolling is governed by contract law. Formulating a well defined governing contract is essential to maintaining a good relationship with students and their families while also protecting the school. Many class action lawsuits do not identify the terms and conditions of a specific contract. Due to this, state law can be utilized to determine the existence of a contract between the university and student. Some states may find an in-fact contract between the university and student, while other states may find there was no contract. Once there is an established contract, there needs to be definite terms and conditions, such as:
Excuse of Contractual Performance. Traditional defenses in contract law excuse performance based on limited circumstances. Known as the force majeure clause, this governs how parties are expected to behave in case of unforeseen circumstances. The pandemic may qualify as an unforeseen circumstance provided it meets the definition of the term in the particular contract. Application of the force majeure clause may excuse the university from providing a particular service or allow it to modify the service provided. However, many schools are reviewing their handbooks and enrollment agreements to ensure that they have an option where a force majeure event occurs.
Prohibition of Education Malpractice. Most jurisdictions across the nation are reluctant to second guess educators. If the lawsuit alleges that substitution to online education is inadequate, universities can argue that courts are prohibited from finding education malpractice in evaluating adequacy of a learning model and should defer to the institution’s determination regarding what the best method of educating is in a given circumstance.
Preclude Class Certification. In order to bring a class action lawsuit, plaintiffs must prove typicality of claims, as well as predominance of common issues. If the defense can show that the class lacks either typicality or predominance of issues, the class certification will fail. Large universities often have students taking courses on a variety of different curricula that may not meet the standards of typicality and predominance required.
The pandemic has challenged academic institutions to implement remote learning and adapt to unpredictability and dwindling revenues. The legal team at MacMain, Connell & Leinhauser represent colleges and universities navigating these unprecedented times and the challenges presented. For an initial consultation, please contact us at 484-318-7106 or contact us online. Located in West Chester, Pennsylvania, we address the needs of clients throughout Philadelphia, Chester County, and New Jersey.