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Decisive Victory for Universities in COVID-19 Refund Tuition Class Actions

April 2021

The firm achieved a significant victory last month for clients the University of Rhode Island, Roger Williams University, and Johnson & Wales University in COVID-19 tuition refund class actions that threatened their financial stability.  See Burt v. Bd. Trs. Univ. of Rhode Island, No. 20-465-JJM-LDA (D.R.I. Mar. 4, 2021) (and consolidated cases).  This decision has already been cited in other cases.  

For universities, the COVID-19 pandemic has heralded an unprecedented number of class action lawsuits.  Despite efforts to ensure their students could continue their studies on schedule through remote learning, universities were met with over 300 class action lawsuits against more than 200 schools. For many universities, these class actions pose an existential threat.  The suits typically allege breach of contract, unjust enrichment, conversion, and violations of consumer protection laws.  They demand refunds of tuition and fees amounting to thousands of dollars per student, with potential 7-figure or 8-figure exposure to the class. 

Many universities moved to dismiss, but the tide so far has run in plaintiffs’ direction overwhelmingly, with most motions denied in state and federal courts across the country.  To win these cases, Quinn Emanuel convinced the District Court to insist, even at the pleading stage, that plaintiffs demonstrate that the alleged contracts contain a specific, enforceable promise to provide uninterrupted in-person education in all circumstances.  Plaintiffs could not do so.  Although they cited course catalogs, websites, and promotional materials, Quinn Emanuel convinced the judge to deem those as unactionable statements, negated by the universities’ express reservation of rights in their catalogs to “change the program of study” and “assignment of instructors, locations, or meeting times” at any time.  On the conversion and unjust enrichment claims, Quinn Emanuel convinced the court that there is nothing “unjust” in receiving tuition and fees in exchange for providing uninterrupted progress towards degrees—especially given the “obvious additional cost” schools “had to incur to continue operations during a pandemic.”