As discussed in previous posts (about Rutgers University, George Washington University and American University, New York University, Baylor University, Florida University, American University and Brandeis University) many COVID-19 lawsuits have been filed throughout the United States to seek reimbursement for college tuition, room, board, meal plans, and fees.
U.S. courts thus far have proven open to examine lawsuits alleging that colleges have breached their contracts with students and families and have taken different stances based on situation-specific facts of how clearly a college promised that the education would be delivered in person (see the story published on 12 September 2022). The vast majority of defendant universities strongly argue that they have never undertaken the obligation to provide in-person, on-campus instruction in return for tuition and that remote learning provides students with education of the same quality as in-person instruction.
This line of defence was also endorsed by the University of Miami, which secured a recent victory before a federal court of appeal, as explained here.
At the beginning of March 2020, when the pandemic was rapidly expanding, the University of Miami informed its students that it would transition to “distance learning”. Shortly thereafter, on 19 March 2020, the County’s Mayor issued an Emergency Order requiring the closure of Miami’s campus for all purposes other than the facilitation of online learning and providing housing for students who could not travel home. This order was later adopted by the Governor of Florida. On 29 April 2020, Miami announced that it would provide students with a prorated refund for the fees and services that could not be provided during the remote learning period.
A former student filed suit, claiming that Miami should have paid damages for its breach of an express or implied contract to provide in person education and access to its campus facilities. As an alternative to her breach of contract claim, the plaintiff argued that Miami was unjustly enriched by retaining her full tuition payment for the Spring 2020 semester.
On 31 July 2023, the Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit dismissed all of the plaintiff’s claims.
As for the breach of contract claim, first the Court noted that the terms of the contract stipulated between the university and the student may be derived from university publications such as the student handbook and catalog; and second, it highlighted that in its handbooks the Miami Universities had reserved the “right to alter or amend its procedures or policies” and “the right at any time to deny, revoke, or modify authorization to use any University facility or premises” because of potential danger.
In the Court’s view, these provisions unambiguously gave Miami the authority to temporarily close its campuses in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Namely, the Court held that there was “no reason to second-guess Miami’s decision to close its facilities in response to 1) the spread of a deadly global pandemic that resulted in a state of emergency in Florida, see Executive Order 20-52; 2) an emergency order from Miami-Dade County that ordered the closure of the campus, see Emergency Order 7-20; and 3) an executive order from the Governor of Florida ordering the closure of the campus”. In other words, Miami could not be held liable for switching to remote learning at the time and under the conditions that it did.
As for the unjust enrichment claim, the Court held that the decision to transition to remote learning was largely out of Miami’s hands since, had the university continued to provide in person education, it would have violated two executive orders.
Furthermore, the Court noted that, in order to switch to online courses, the university had spent millions of dollars and had finally experienced a net financial loss of roughly 50 million dollars.
Reference: Dixon v. Miami University, Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit, 31 July 2023.