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Appeals court rules for students in COVID-related tuition case

Posted On: Mar. 8, 2022 2:33 PM CST


The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia overturned lower court rulings and reinstated litigation filed by George Washington University and American University students seeking tuition and fee refunds because of the institutions’ COVID-19-related moves to online classes.

The appeals court affirmed dismissal of the claims made in separate lawsuits that the Washington, D.C., universities had not breached “express” contracts promising in-person education instruction activities and services in exchange for tuition and fees, according to Tuesday’s ruling by the appeals court in Mark Shaffer et al. v. George Washington University et al; and Maaz Qureshi, et al. v. American University.

“However, it said, “we hold that Plaintiffs’ complaints plausibly allege that the Universities breached implied-in-fact contracts for in-person education,” the ruling said.

These, “combined with the reasonable inferences drawn from them suffice to support their claims that the Universities promised to provide in-person instruction in exchange for Plaintiffs’ tuition payments,” it said, in reversing dismissal of the plaintiffs’ implied-in-fact-contract claims with respect to tuition and some of the fees at issue.

The ruling added, the universities “will likely have compelling arguments to offer that the pandemic and resulting government shutdown order discharged their duties to perform these alleged promises.

“However, because the Universities have not raised any such defense before this court, we leave the issue to the District Courts to resolve in the first instance.”

Plaintiff attorney Daniel J. Kurkowski, a partner with Hagens Berman Sobol Shapiro LLP in Chicago, who argued the case before the appeals court, said in a statement, “We are pleased with the opinion.”

He said, “It 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.” Mr. Kurkowski said his law firm has filed more than a dozen similar lawsuits.

Attorneys for the universities did not respond to a request for comment.