Appeals court restores lawsuits seeking coronavirus tuition refunds

A federal appeals court restored two previously stuck down lawsuits seeking tuition reimbursement from universities because of their COVID-19 response.

By a vote of 2-1, the Washington D.C. Court of Appeals found the cases of Mark Shaffer v. George Washington University and Maaz Qureshi v. American University can move forward. In an opinion filed by Senior Circuit Judge Harry T. Edwards, the court found that the universities had breached “implied-in-fact” contracts.

As explained by Appellants, students “who paid tens of thousands of dollars in tuition and fees to get an in-person educational experience… [had] that in-person experience ripped away.” Mark Shaffer spoke out after his initial suit to add that his daughter could have enrolled in any number of online universities at a lower cost, but it was the experience at GWU that he was paying for.

“They can’t make it the equivalent experience and they ought to refund part of the tuition,” Shaffer stated, offering an estimate of seven or eight thousand dollars of the $30,000 tuition ought to be returned for lack of access to facilities and amenities that are incorporated into the cost.

Judge Edwards’s opinion affirmed the merits of Shaffer et al. noting that breach of “express” contracts was not supported by the Plaintiffs’ claims, “Plaintiffs’ complaints plausibly allege that the Universities breached implied-in-fact contracts for in-person education.”

“Plaintiff’s factual allegations, combined with the reasonable inferences drawn from them,” Edwards went on, “suffice to support their claims that the Universities promised to provide in-person instruction in exchange for Plaintiffs’ tuition payments.”

GWU spokeswoman Crystal Nosal told The Washington Post the university would defend the case. GWU’s “top priority is the health and safety of our community,” Nosal said before adding that they had merely “heeded the recommendations of public health experts and complied with District of Columbia orders…in the face of the pandemic.”

Nosal implied that despite those restrictions, faculty and administrators “worked hard to provide our students with a quality academic experience by distance” and created avenues “for students to meaningfully engage with each other.”

Sandra Rodriguez spoke on behalf of AU in stating they “are reviewing the ruling and will continue to defend” their position.

Daniel Kurowski, attorney for Shaffer et al., was certain that the ruling by the appeals court, “confirms our position that the bargain between universities, students and their families in exchange for tens of thousands of tuition and fee charges each semester is more than just a bargain for credits and nothing more.”

The court also reversed the dismissal of claims that universities had “unjustly enriched” themselves by retaining tuition and fees that would have been allocated to in-person education that did not take place.

“We are sympathetic to these realities and have no doubt that unexpected costs and declining revenues placed significant financial strain on many colleges and universities,” Edwards wrote in part. “But determining whether the transition to online learning resulted in a net enrichment to GW and American is a fact-intensive question inappropriate for resolution at the motion-to-dismiss stage.”

As universities like Georgetown, Penn State and Harvard have faced similar lawsuits, the results of this case are likely to be used as precedent-setting moving forward.


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