Law360 (April 8, 2021, 11:08 PM EDT) -- A California federal judge consolidated three putative class actions from University of San Diego students demanding tuition refunds in light of COVID-19 campus closures, the latest in a growing list of similar consolidated breach of contract suits against universities.
U.S. District Judge Larry Alan Burns said Wednesday that the suits are related because they arise from the same set of facts and similar legal theories. They also aim to represent overlapping classes of students who paid tuition for a semester during which the university held online versions of activities that would typically have been held in person, the judge said.
One of the suits was filed in October, the other two following in November.
USD student Catherine Holden told the California federal court in her November complaint that the university refused to reimburse students for services it no longer provided during the pandemic. She's looking to represent a class of about 9,100 students.
"While defendants may not bear culpability for the campus closures or the inability to provide any classroom instruction, neither do the enrolled students," Holden said in her complaint.
"Yet while defendants have used the current COVID-19 shutdown circumstances to excuse their duty to perform fully the obligations of their bargain with their students, defendants continue to demand that all students fully perform their contractual bargain to pay in full all tuition and fees without any reduction for defendants' lack of full performance," she continued.
According to the suit, USD shut down all of its campus facilities, discontinued all in-classroom instruction and shifted everything online. Holden said that while those closures are attributable to the pandemic and California's shelter-in-place order, the university has continued holding students liable for full tuition and fee obligations.
The private university's undergraduate tuition, housing, meal plans and other fees cost each student about $70,000 per academic year, according to its website.
Holden said USD's refusal to reimburse students is "contrary to ordinary tenets of contract law."
"This 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," she said.
According to the suit, the proposed class includes all students enrolled at a USD campus — who paid tuition and mandatory campus and student fees for the spring semester of 2020 and thereafter — for classes scheduled for in-person instruction that did not proceed as such.
In addition to breach of contract, Holden is alleging unjust enrichment and unfair competition. She's seeking unspecified damages, attorney fees and court costs.
Universities and colleges are facing similar suits all around the country. In late April 2020, students at University of California and California State University schools accused the university systems of withholding campus fee 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.
Earlier that month, 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. And Michigan State University, Pace University, the University of Miami and Drexel University have also been accused of withholding tuition and fees.
In October, a California federal magistrate judge said during a hearing that she planned to dismiss the suits against the Regents of the University of California, finding the students hadn't overcome the UC Regents' qualified immunity defense.
Holden is represented by Carney R. Shegerian, Anthony Nguyen and Cheryl A. Kenner of Shegerian & Associates Inc. Chavarria is represented by Thomas S. Alch. Martinez is represented by James A. Francis of Francis & Mailman PC.
The university is represented by Jennifer Marie Fontaine of Paul Plevin Sullivan & Connaughton LLP.
The consolidated suits are Martinez et al. v. University of San Diego, case number 3:20-cv-01946, Catherine Holden v. University of San Diego et al., case number 3:20-cv-02169, and Chavarria v. University of San Diego, case number 3:20-cv-02215, all in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of California.
The new case information is In re University of San Diego Tuition and Fees COVID-19 Refund Litigation, case number 3:20-cv-01946, in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of California.
--Additional reporting by Hannah Albarazi and Hailey Konnath. Editing by Regan Estes.
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