Since the global pandemic forced most college campuses to resort to online instruction in March 2020, college students across the country have filed more than 150 lawsuits against their schools seeking refunds of tuition and related fees.
This month, a federal judge in Boston made the first dispositive ruling in such a case against Northeastern University – tossing out most of the claims asserted by the students in a putative class-action matter. Judge Richard G. Stearns of the District of Massachusetts found in Chong v Northeastern University, 20-10844-RGS, that the contract between the university and its students (the Financial Responsibility Agreement, “FRA”) did not specifically include a right to in-person instruction. The Judge noted that the FRA ties the payment of tuition to the registration for courses, “not to the receipt of any particular method of course instruction.”
The Judge also dismissed the students’ claims seeking a refund of certain student fees, such as student activity fees, finding that they paid the fees to support certain campus facilities – not necessarily to gain access to them. Thus, the Court gave no credence to the students’ claims that they should receive a refund of activity fees because the school prevented them from accessing those facilities due to the pandemic.
However, the Court did allow the students’ claims seeking a refund of campus recreation fees to go forward, finding that the students’ payment of those fees may have implicitly created a right to attend home athletic events and use the campus gym and fitness facilities, which ceased on March 12.
Judge Stearns’ ruling may be a sign of things to come for the many similar lawsuits currently pending against colleges and universities throughout the country. However, as in this case or any breach of contract action, these rulings will likely turn on the specific language of the applicable contract between the institution and the student.