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Key Developments in COVID-19 Tuition Refund Class Actions against Colleges and Universities

In just two months, more than 110 class action lawsuits have been filed against colleges and universities. These complaints arise out of the COVID-19 pandemic that forced higher education institutions to close their campuses and turn to remote learning to protect the safety of their communities, including their students.

Each lawsuit asserts two or three substantive claims; all assert claims for breach of contract and unjust enrichment, and some add claims for conversion. None of the cases allege that the schools were wrong to close their campuses as the pandemic spread. Instead, the plaintiffs in the cases seek the refund of some portion of tuition paid for the spring semester of 2020 on the alleged basis that there is purportedly a difference in value between on-campus education and remote learning.

Commonalities, patterns, and trends have emerged from the dozens of complaints, and below are key observations about the tuition refund class actions filed as of this date:

  • May was the worst month yet, but the curve may be flattening. Just one complaint was filed in March, and only five were filed in the first half of April; 34 were filed in the second half of April, 47 in the first half of May, and 21 in the second half of May. It is too early to know if the pace of filings has already peaked and is in a downturn. But the slower filing rate in the second half of May could represent a coming pause in activity by the first-acting plaintiff’s firms, to perhaps be followed by imitation lawsuits by other firms that will come later in the summer. Or, the Memorial Day holiday may simply have temporarily slowed filings. We don’t know whether this downward trend will continue, but month-over-month, May was clearly the worst yet for higher education defendants.

  • Complaints have been filed mostly in the federal district court where the institution is located. Roughly 95% of class action complaints have been filed in federal district court. Those filed in state court are likely subject to removal based on the relaxed diversity requirements of the Class Action Fairness Act of 2005. Although a small number of suits have been brought in the district where a student-plaintiff resides but the institution has no campus, the vast majority are filed in a district where the institution has a physical presence.

  • Suits are spread across the country, in all regions. Filings have been regionally dispersed. The leading states with federal court filings are New York (38), California (14), New Jersey (11), Massachusetts (10), and Pennsylvania (8). The remaining federal cases fall across other regions including the Southeast (18), Midwest (7), New England (4), Southwest (4), and Pacific Northwest (1).

  • A handful of plaintiff’s firms are behind the majority of filings. Three firms are behind more than half of all filings: Bursor & Fisher PA (40), Anastopoulo Law Firm (22), and Hagens Berman Sobol Shapiro LLP (9). Only 10% of all cases have been filed by a plaintiff’s firm working on only one case, meaning the vast majority have been filed by firms bringing multiple cases.

  • Filings to date have focused on large university systems. So far, the actions filed have focused on large university systems with enrolled students that number in the tens of thousands. More than 90% of all defendants are universities, with only a handful of colleges facing litigation. While it is possible that these institutions will remain the targets of these class action suits, it is possible that later filings will focus on smaller colleges and universities.

  • Many institutions are facing multiple suits. Just because an institution has been named as a defendant once does not mean the college or university will not face multiple complaints. Of the more than 75 institutions that have been targeted with class action suits to date, at least 19 are facing multiple actions.

©2020 Pierce Atwood LLP. All rights reserved.National Law Review, Volume X, Number 150
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About this Author

Melanie Conroy Commercial Litigation Attorney Pierce Atwood Law Firm
Counsel

Melanie Conroy focuses her practice on class action defense and complex commercial litigation. She has represented clients in connection with internal, government, and regulatory investigations, and has counseled boards of directors, board committees, and senior management on a broad range of matters, including securities, corporate governance, disclosure, and regulatory issues.

Melanie represents businesses and organizations across a wide range of industries, including life sciences, financial services, insurance, private equity, real estate, energy, media, consumer electronics,...

617-488-8119
Don Frederico, Litigation Attorney, Pierce Atwood Law Firm, Class Action Defense
Partner

Don Frederico leads Pierce Atwood's class action defense practice, which received a National Tier One ranking in the 2017 and 2018 U.S. News-Best Lawyers "Best Law Firms" reports. A senior trial attorney with more than three decades of courtroom experience, Don has represented defendants in a wide array of class actions in federal and state court, including in such areas as consumer fraud, product liability, labor and employment, environmental and toxic torts, antitrust, and civil RICO. 

Don has represented clients in such industries as financial services, building products, retail, pharmaceuticals, automotive, food and beverage, petroleum, chemical manufacturing, health care, high technology, and higher education. He frequently publishes and lectures before national and local bar and industry organizations on topics including class action practice, and serves as editor and contributing author to the firm's class action blog, First Class Defense.

Don has served as Special Discovery Master in complex litigation matters and is a past president of the Boston Bar Association. He began his career serving as a law clerk to United States District Judge Joseph L. Tauro in federal district court in Boston.

As a young attorney, Don was part of the successful trial team for one of the defendants in the lawsuit memorialized in the book and movie, "A Civil Action." He later served as lead national counsel with respect to class certification and Daubert motions for pharmaceutical companies in the "Fen-Phen" diet drug litigation, and served as lead class certification counsel for a Fortune 50 retailer in wage and hour lawsuits in various state and federal courts.

617 488-8141
Lucus A. Ritchie Litigation Pierce Atwood Portland, ME
Partner

Lucus Ritchie is a partner in Pierce Atwood's Litigation Practice Group. Lucus' practice covers a wide variety of complex commercial disputes, with a particular emphasis on class action defense and energy litigation. Lucus regularly appears in federal and state trial courts throughout the country, and also represents clients in arbitrations, mediations and contested administrative proceedings. In each case, Lucus focuses on developing a detailed understanding of his client's business and its goals, and uses advocacy and creativity in order to obtain favorable results in a practical and...

(207)791-1342
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