Law360 (May 10, 2021, 10:53 PM EDT) -- A Massachusetts federal judge on Monday handed Northeastern University a quick win in a proposed class action lodged by students seeking tuition refunds after the school pivoted to remote learning amid the pandemic, finding that a handbook the students agreed to contained a clause excusing in-person learning during so-called force majeure events.
U.S. District Judge Richard G. Stearns ruled in a 16-page order that a delivery of services provision found in Northeastern's handbook clearly laid out that the school has the right to adjust its programs and academic schedules when necessary.
The section in question also spells out that the school does not accept liability for any delays or failures to provide educational instruction and other services due to causes that fall beyond its control.
"Given the clarity of this language, the court does not believe that any reasonable student who professed to have read it (as these plaintiffs did) could have expected that registering for in-person classes and executing the Student Financial Responsibility Agreement would give him or her a contractual right to receive in-person instruction and/or unrestricted access to on-campus facilities and resources," the judge wrote.
The students, two undergraduates and one graduate student, sued Northeastern last May on the basis that they lost out on valuable in-person instruction and the use of the school's facilities when the pandemic forced everything online, and that they should be entitled to recoup some of their money.
The school is one of several nationwide facing claims that money spent during the ill-fated spring 2020 semester should be refunded because students were denied in-person instruction amid the health crisis.
Northeastern lost its motion to dismiss the suit last December, as Judge Stearns said it was an open question whether an annual financial agreement might have required the school to provide in-person education.
The school then argued in April that students should have been paying "close attention" to the agreement they clicked on during a mandatory screen that appeared before they could access the university websites for class registration and grading. The university said it had never promised in-person classes.
But the students hit back, pointing out that the way the school buried the delivery of services terms at the back of the handbook, one which wasn't linked directly from the portal screen, means it didn't incorporate it into the agreement.
They also underscored a passage within the handbook that said its information "should not be regarded as contractual."
On Monday, the judge found that the students were not given fair notice about entering into a binding contract when they hit the accept button in the portal, and continued that the language in the terms and conditions itself is ambiguous.
The judge also agreed that the language at issue in the case is "buried at the end of the document assembly."
That said, the judge found merit in the school's alternative theory that the delivery of services language heavily weighs against "any reasonable expectation of in-person instruction or access to on-campus facilities in the face of a pandemic or other force majeure."
The judge added that the students' "late-blooming contention" that they did not read the handbooks is unacceptable.
"It has long been the rule, and for an important purpose, that a person who signs an acknowledgement that he or she has read and understands the provisions of a document will be held to their word, however strenuously they may later profess ignorance of the contents of that document," the judge wrote.
Renata Nyul, Northeastern's vice president of communications, told Law360 on Tuesday that public health guidelines issued amid the pandemic "forced higher education institutions, including Northeastern, to make the decision to temporarily shift all instruction online."
"This was the only way that we could keep our community safe and enable students to pursue their education uninterrupted," she continued.
Representatives for the students did not immediately respond to Law360's requests for comment on Monday.
The students are represented by Patrick F. Madden, E. Michelle Drake, Joseph C. Hashmall and Shanon J. Carson of Berber Montague PC; David Pastor of Pastor Law Office LLP; Frederick J. Klorczyk III; Alec M. Leslie of Bursor & Fisher PA; Gary M. Klinger of Mason Lietz & Klinger LLP; W. Clifton Holmes of The Holmes Law Group Ltd. and Douglas F. Hartman of Hartman Law PC.
Northeastern University is represented by John Shope and Rachel C. Hutchinson of Foley Hoag LLP, and Victoria L. Steinberg, Daniel J. Cloherty and Rebecca M. O'Brien of Todd & Weld LLP.
The case is Manny Chong et al. v. Northeastern University, case number 1:20-cv-10844, in the U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts.
--Additional reporting by Brian Dowling and Chris Villani. Editing by Regan Estes.
Update: This story has been updated to reflect comment from Northeastern.
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