Calif. University Systems Latest Sued Over COVID-19 Refunds

By Hailey Konnath
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Law360 (April 27, 2020, 11:47 PM EDT) -- Students at University of California and California State University schools on Monday accused the university systems of withholding campus fees refunds in the wake of COVID-19-related campus closures, lodging a pair of proposed class actions that look to represent a combined 700,000 total students.

According to the complaints filed in California federal court, the university systems have profited from the coronavirus pandemic by refusing to reimburse students for services they're no longer receiving as the world battles COVID-19. The students say the universities should've refunded prorated portions of their campus fees, particularly in light of the UC system's $21 billion endowment and CSU system's $2 billion endowment.

Despite its constructive eviction of students from campus for the remainder of the semester and ending all campus activities for at least that same time period, the University of California system has not offered refunds to students for the unused portion of their campus fees paid to cover the cost of certain on-campus services that are no longer available to students, named plaintiff Claire Brandmeyer said in the suit against UC.

Their suits were filed against the boards of regents at each university system.

Per the complaints, the UC system features 10 campuses and the CSU system includes 23. At all 33 campuses, coursework was moved online and students were encouraged to move off campus as COVID-19 ravaged the Golden State. Nearly all services covered by their student fees were suspended at that time, the students said, pointing to health facilities, student association dues and the use of student centers.

Depending on the campus, students paid between $800 and $4,200 in fees for the 2019-2020 academic year, they said.

The students are after disgorgement of the prorated, unused amounts of campus fees paid to the institutions, per the suits.

The named students in the suits — Akayla Miller, a CSU student, and Brandmeyer — are represented by the same team of attorneys at Cowper Law PC, DiCello Levitt Gutzler LLC and Matthew S. Miller LLC.

Attorneys at DiCello Levitt and Matthew S. Miller filed the country's first lawsuit seeking fees reimbursement against the Arizona Board of Regents in March, according to a statement from the firms. They've also sued on behalf of students at Liberty University and Grand Canyon University.

The accusations against the UC and CSU systems come as similar suits mount against universities and colleges all over the country. Also on Monday, a Vanderbilt University student went after his school for refusing to reimburse room and board and tuition in the wake of the pandemic. The unnamed student alleged that the university sent its students home yet continued to charge fees and tuition "as if nothing has changed, continuing to reap the financial benefit of millions of dollars from students," per the proposed class action filed in Tennessee federal court.

And on Saturday, Fordham University Kareem Hassan hit his school with a similar putative class action in New York federal court, claiming students at the institution "lost the benefit of the education for which they paid, without having their tuition and some other fees refunded to them."

Last week, Ivy League students sued Columbia and Cornell universities. Michigan State University, Pace University, the University of Miami and Drexel University have also been accused of withholding tuition and fees.

Adam Levitt, counsel for the California students, said in a statement Monday that it is improper to retain millions of dollars in campus fees despite terminating the services those fees covered.

"A college education is already a monumental expense for students and their families, and to essentially offer them no relief on these material expenditures, particularly during a time when millions of Americans are struggling financially, is not only tone-deaf but unfair and unlawful," he said in the statement.

Steve Berman, counsel for the Vanderbilt students, said in a statement that college students across the country "are in whiplash right now."

"As if the shock of sudden campus closure was not enough, students are now left with holding the bill for amenities they will not receive, often to the tune of tens of thousands of dollars," Berman said.

Vanderbilt said in a statement provided to Law360 on Tuesday that the school doesn't comment on litigation. However, it said the "well-being and success of our students and community is our top priority."

The university added that it "remains steadfast in our commitment to our teaching and research mission."

Mike Uhlenkamp, a spokesperson for CSU, said in a statement Tuesday that the lawsuit misstates the facts.

"Although classes were converted to online instruction ... every CSU campus continued to fulfil its mission of providing instruction and services to its students," Uhlenkamp said. "Campuses continue to operate, and many personal services are now provided remotely, such as counseling, advising, faculty office hours, disability student services, and even telehealth medical care."

The university system has also promised to provide refunds for "various categories of fees that are determined to have been unearned by the campus," he added.

Counsel for Hassan and representatives with Fordham and UC didn't immediately return requests for comment late Monday.

Miller and Brandmeyer are both represented by C. Moze Cowper and Noel E. Garcia of Cowper Law PC, Adam J. Levitt, Amy E. Keller and Laura E. Reasons of DiCello Levitt Gutzler LLC and Matthew S. Miller of Matthew S. Miller LLC.

Hassan is represented by Philip L. Fraietta and Sarah N. Westcot of Bursor & Fisher PA.

Doe is represented by Tricia Herzfeld and Anthony A. Orlandi of Branstetter Stranch & Jennings PLLC and Steve W. Berman, Daniel J. Kurowski and Whitney K. Siehl of Hagens Berman Sobol Shapiro LLP.

Counsel information for the defendants wasn't immediately available Monday.

The California cases are Akayla Miller v. Board of Trustees of the California State University, case number 2:20-cv-03833, in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California; and Claire Brandmeyer v. The Regents of the University of California, case number 4:20-cv-02886, in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California. The other cases are Kareem Hassan v. Fordham University, case number 1:20-cv-03265, in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York; and John Doe v. Vanderbilt University, case number 3:20-mc-09999, in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Tennessee.

—Editing by Michael Watanabe. 

Update: This story has been updated to include comment from Vanderbilt and CSU.

Correction: An earlier version of the story misstated the scope of the California suits. The error has been corrected.

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