Judge Clears Lawsuit Against Major University Over Campus Shutdown During Pandemic

Judge Clears Lawsuit Against Major University Over Campus Shutdown During Pandemic
The University of Delaware campus. (Google Maps)
Zachary Stieber

Students who sued the University of Delaware over its abrupt, complete shift to online classes during the COVID-19 pandemic have scored another win, with a judge agreeing that their lawsuit can move forward as a class action.

The school, which has about 17,000 students, in the spring of 2020 stopped all in-person classes and soon shut down its campus.

But administrators did not provide refunds for student fees of tuition, triggering the suit.

Students said that the school promised in-person classes and services in exchange for tuition and that they were entitled to some of their money back, particularly because the university allegedly made money off the move to virtual learning.

The school said it never promised in-person classes and that students are not entitled to refunds, apart from the partial refunds they already received for housing, dining, and parking.

Judge Stephanos Bibas, an appeals court judge sitting by designation in the U.S. District Court for the District of Delaware, sided primarily with the students, finding that the students had provided evidence that they were paying for in-person instruction.

“This history, custom, and course of dealing, along with the school’s statements, plausibly created an implied promise of in-person classes. These claims will proceed to discovery,” Bibas wrote in a 2021 ruling.

In the new opinion, dated March 31, the judge certified the matter as a class action, meaning it covers all students who paid tuition for the 2020 spring semester.

While the university had claimed it was impossible to know which students actually paid tuition because some may have used funds from sources such as scholarships, Bibas said that was irrelevant.

“Those students, no less than students who paid out of their own pockets, were parties to a contract that U. Delaware allegedly breached. Because U. Delaware has enough records to figure out which students did not get full rides, there is a reliable way to determine who those students are. So it can reliably figure out who belongs to the class,” he wrote.

The school had also asserted that the plaintiffs in the case had not paid tuition.

“That is false,” Bibas said. “The named plaintiffs paid tuition, through either loans or cash from their parents.”

Bibas also said that the questions in the case are common to all students who paid tuition. The questions include whether the university breached an agreement by shifting classes online and whether the university was forced to shift classes because of the pandemic conditions and orders, such as a shelter-in-place order from then-Gov. John Carney.

Plaintiffs have estimated that more than 9,000 students paid tuition for the spring semester. The school received more than $160 million in tuition.

The ultimate ruling will depend in part on the benefits the university received from moving classes online, according to the judge.

Bibas ruled in 2021 that the case could move forward on the implied contract claims as well as claims of unjust enrichment.

The latter would depend on the net gain for the school.

“If U. Delaware got a greater benefit than the students, then it was probably unjust for the school to keep the students’ money, as that enrichment has no basis in a valid agreement,” Bibas said. “But if an online education in spring 2020 was worth full tuition, then there was no net enrichment.”

The net enrichment can be measured by taking the money the university received from each student and subtracting “the fair market value of the services it provided to each of them,” according to the judge. Calculating the value will not be easy, he said.

“I cannot simply compare the value of an in-person education to that of an online education under typical circumstances. Spring 2020 was unique,” the judge said. “But net enrichment is hard to calculate because of the nature of the claim, not the presence of thousands of plaintiffs. So I still find that common questions predominate.”

In an emailed statement to The Epoch Times, the school didn’t directly comment on the details of the case.

“The University of Delaware is proud of the remarkable resilience of its students, faculty, and staff to adapt to the unexpected and unprecedented challenges posed by the global pandemic in Spring 2020. Prioritizing both campus health and academic continuity, and as required by applicable orders, the University quickly and successfully pivoted modalities to online education, leading our students to graduation and launching them to successful careers,” it said.

Lwyers for the plaintiffs did not respond to requests for comment.