A federal judge ruled in favor of a group of University of Delaware students and their parents on Aug. 20, allowing them to press claims that the university breached its contract and “unjustly enriched itself” by ending in-person classes and services in response to the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) virus pandemic last spring.
The university (UD), like many other schools in the United States, started its spring 2020 semester with in-person learning and switched to online instruction when the pandemic hit. While the university offered a partial refund of services such as housing, dining, and parking, it refused to refund any of the students’ tuition or fees, including those for the gym, the student centers, and the health center, which were all closed during the time of online instruction.
In two separate lawsuits, the plaintiffs argue that the university “breached contractual obligations” when it failed to provide the campus experience it had promised. They are suing for partial refunds of their spring 2020 tuition and fees and are seeking to represent all UD students who paid tuition or fees that they believe should have been reimbursed.
Attorneys for the university filed motions to dismiss the lawsuits, saying that it never actually promised to hold classes in person. UD also argued that parents who paid for their adult children’s tuition and fees don’t have standing to sue because they weren’t personally denied in-person services or forced to take “the allegedly inferior online classes.”
Judge Stephanos Bibas of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit sided with the students, saying that they’ve “plausibly alleged that university promised them in-person classes, activities, and services.”
“True, the school never promised them expressly. But promises need not be express to be enforceable,” Bibas, a Trump appointee, wrote in his opinion (pdf). “By its statements and history of offering classes in person, the school may have implied a promise to stay in person.”
Bibas also noted that, even if the university was justified in breaking any promise because of the pandemic, it shouldn’t be unjustly enriched in doing so, and may have to return the money it saved, if any, by shutting down the campus and moving classes online.
The judge also rejected the university’s argument that parents don’t have standing in the lawsuit.
“If the parents are right, they suffered a simpler injury: The school wrongly took their money. It promised to use the money for one purpose but did not,” Bibas wrote. “This ‘financial harm is a classic and paradigmatic form of injury’ that supports standing.”
Citing Delaware’s state law, Bibas noted that the relationship between a university and its students is a contractual one. Under Delaware law, a contract may not necessarily be a written one, but “may be inferred wholly or partly from conduct.”
“Schools and students show their intent to contract mostly through their actions, not words: The school admits them, the students enroll and pay tuition, and the students go to class,” he said. “The parties did that here, and their acts plausibly created an implied contract.”
University of Delaware officials didn’t respond to a request for comment by press time.