Baylor University Beats COVID-19 Tuition Reimbursement Suit

By Katie Buehler
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Law360 (April 2, 2021, 6:00 PM EDT) -- A Texas federal judge has dismissed a proposed class action seeking tuition reimbursement from Baylor University after the school moved classes online due to the coronavirus pandemic, finding that the private school never promised in-person classes to its undergraduate students.

U.S. District Judge Alan D. Albright on Wednesday adopted a recommendation U.S. Magistrate Judge Jeffrey C. Manske made in January to dismiss Baylor student Allison King's claims for breach of contract.

Judge Manske wrote that a financial responsibility agreement King entered into with the school when she paid tuition never promised in-person, on-campus education and that its merger clause gave the school leeway to change its education methods.

"The merger clause expressly contemplates that any number of Jumanjian phenomena may require Baylor to alter its anticipated methods in order to continue providing 'educational services,' and so Baylor will not be bound by alleged extra-contractual promises," Judge Manske wrote, referring to the 1981 children's book "Jumanji" by Chris Van Allsburg about a board game that places its players into new hazardous scenarios every turn.

Judge Albright didn't elaborate on his reasons for adopting Judge Manske's report and recommendation, according to Wednesday's order.

King argued in her proposed class action filed in June that the private Baptist university in Waco, Texas, breached an implied contract and owed her a reimbursement of tuition, student fees and her meal plan for the spring 2020 semester. In mid-March, Baylor announced it would move classes online for the rest of the semester, according to court documents.

But Baylor countered in its August motion to dismiss, and Judge Manske agreed, that the financial responsibility agreement superseded any implied contract alleged by King and invalidated her claims.

Judge Manske wrote in his report and recommendation that the final clause of the contract, a merger clause, states the financial responsibility agreement is "the parties' complete and final agreement and supersedes all informal understanding and oral agreements relating to the subject matter of the contract."

He added that Baylor has changed the services it provides in the past in reaction to other natural disasters and unforeseen events. The school canceled classes in May 1953 after an F5 tornado, the deadliest in Texas history, tore through Waco. It also canceled classes after the city ordered the closing of "schools, picture shows, theaters and other places for public gatherings" in 1918 during the Spanish influenza, Judge Manske wrote.

"In the wake of each of these unforeseen events, now including COVID-19, Baylor's campus, its classrooms and its residence halls certainly looked different than anyone expected," the judge wrote.

King had included in her lawsuit an alternative claim of action of unjust enrichment against the university, but Judge Manske found, under Texas law, unjust enrichment cannot be brought as an independent claim.

Baylor was one of many public and private universities across the country that faced tuition reimbursement suits after moving to online classes during the coronavirus pandemic. Judges in New York, Washington, D.C., and California have dismissed similar suits after coming to the same conclusion that the schools never explicitly promised in-person classes.

Other cases, such as separate Massachusetts federal cases against Northeastern University and Harvard University and New York federal cases against Columbia University and Pace University, are still pending, according to court records.

Counsel for King didn't immediately respond to requests for comment Friday. Counsel for Baylor declined to comment.

King is represented by Jeff Edwards, Scott Medlock, Michael Singley and David James of Edwards Law, Erin M. Poulin and Roy T. Willey IV of Anastopoulo Law Firm LLC, Jeff Ostrow and Kristen Lake Cardoso of Kopelowitz Ostrow Ferguson Weiselberg Gilbert, Daniel Warshaw of Pearson Smith & Warshaw LLP and Hassan A. Zavareei and Anna Haac of Tycko & Zavareei LLP.

Baylor is represented by Russ Falconer, Thomas Molloy and Philip Axt of Gibson Dunn & Crutcher LLP.

The case is King v. Baylor University, case number 6:20-cv-00504, in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas.

--Editing by Stephen Berg.

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

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Case Information

Case Title

King v. Baylor University


Case Number

6:20-cv-00504

Court

Texas Western

Nature of Suit

Contract: Other

Judge

Alan D Albright

Date Filed

June 05, 2020

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