Princeton Latest School Hit With COVID-19 Tuition Refund Suit

By Lauren Berg
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Law360 (November 19, 2020, 9:20 PM EST) -- With most of its classes online due to the coronavirus pandemic, Princeton should not be charging students full tuition because they aren't getting everything they paid for, according to a proposed class action filed in New Jersey federal court.

Princeton University has shut down most of its campus facilities and moved many classes online in response to the ever-growing coronavirus crisis, but it has breached its contracts with students by continuing to charge full tuition rates without providing promised services and facilities, according to the complaint filed by Reid Zlotky.

Even though the campus closure is not Princeton's fault, Zlotky said, it cannot breach its contract with students by making them pay all tuition and fees for the Spring 2020 term.

"The indefensible breach is saddling wholly innocent students with mounting debt as a result of having to pay tuition and fees for services they are not receiving and facilities and services that are not being provided," Zlotky said.

Zlotky, a Texas resident, is a second-year undergraduate student at Princeton and said the yearly tuition for the 2019 to 2020 academic year was $51,870 or $25,935 for the semester. The school then raised its tuition rates for 2020 to 2021 to $53,890, according to the suit, despite announcing that its Fall 2020 semester would be "fully remote."

Zlotky wants to represent a class of anyone enrolled at Princeton who paid tuition and fees for the Spring 2020 term and who were denied in-person instruction.

The suit claims breach of contract, unjust enrichment and conversion, among other things. It seeks compensatory damages and/or restitution, treble damages, litigation costs and attorney fees, as well as injunctive relief.

"The core of this class action is that [Zlotky] and nearly 8,500 students at Princeton simply aren't getting what they bargained and paid for," Charlie Kocher of McOmber McOmber & Luber PC, an attorney for the plaintiff, told Law360 on Thursday. "While we are not faulting Princeton for transitioning to online instruction as a result of COVID-19, we are seeking a refund of the tuition and other fees that were unlawfully and unjustly retained." 

A representative for Princeton did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Princeton is just the latest university to face a lawsuit over its tuition prices during the pandemic.

Earlier this month, a University of San Diego student hit her school with a similar suit, telling the California federal court that USD has refused to reimburse students for services it no longer provides.

In April, Fordham University student 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."

Ivy League students have also sued Columbia and Cornell universities. Michigan State University, Pace University, the University of Miami and Drexel University have also been accused of withholding fee refunds.

But earlier this month, the Regents of the University of California beat two lawsuits accusing them of withholding campus fee refunds, after a California federal judge ruled that the regents are entitled to qualified immunity under the 11th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

Zlotky is represented by Matthew A. Luber and Charles J. Kocher of McOmber McOmber & Luber PC and Carney R. Shegerian, Anthony Nguyen and Cheryl A. Kenner of Shegerian & Associates Inc.

Counsel information for Princeton was not immediately available.

The case is Reid Zlotky v. The Trustees of Princeton University et al., case number 3:20-cv-16622, in the U.S. District Court for the District of New Jersey.

--Additional reporting by Hailey Konnath. Editing by Jay Jackson Jr.

For a reprint of this article, please contact reprints@law360.com.

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