Law360 (April 13, 2021, 4:16 PM EDT) -- An Illinois federal judge on Monday tossed a proposed class action filed by a Lewis University student seeking tuition refunds in the wake of COVID-19-related campus closures, saying she hadn't alleged that the university made a promise to provide in-person classes.
Dismissing named plaintiff Brianna Miller's claims for breach of contract and unjust enrichment against the Catholic university in Romeoville, Illinois, U.S. District Judge Matthew Kennelly said Miller's reliance on Lewis' marketing materials, its strategic plan and her spring 2020 course schedule aren't enough to sustain her lawsuit, which was first filed in September.
The school's promotional materials and advertisements, even if they highlighted in-person educational experiences at the university, can't become part of the contract between Miller and Lewis, Judge Kennelly said. And even if they could be considered, they make "puffing" statements about the school's "well-equipped classrooms" and "safe and welcoming campus," which aren't concrete promises, he said.
As for the executive summary of Lewis University's strategic plan, which Miller points to to bolster her arguments, it similarly "contains no concrete statements committing the university to definite actions," the judge said.
"For example, the fact that Lewis intends to 'advance transformative life experiences; experiential learning opportunities and a campus setting that creates a distinctive and relevant student experience' is of no consequence here," Judge Kennelly said. "That intention is an unenforceable aspiration, not an enforceable promise that Miller or any other student can enforce against Lewis in a court of law."
And while students like Miller were invited to choose courses that used specific instructional methods — like traditional in-person learning versus remote instruction — her 2020 spring schedule also came with an important caveat that the information was "subject to change without notice," the judge said. Notations about instruction methods don't amount to definite promises, he said.
"Without more, these notations are informative rather than promissory and Miller cannot transform such statements into a binding contract," he said.
Judge Kennelly also said Miller's unjust enrichment claim couldn't stand as an alternative to her breach of contract claim because those allegations are premised on the university's alleged failure to fulfill contractual terms.
"Though the court is sympathetic to all who have been aggrieved by the pandemic, not all grievances are redressable by courts of law," he said.
The judge gave Miller until April 26 to file an amended complaint.
Counsel for the parties could not be immediately reached for comment Tuesday.
Miller and the proposed class are represented by Jason P. Sultzer of The Sultzer Law Group and Gary F. Lynch, Kathleen P. Lally, Edward W. Ciolko and Katrina Carroll of Carlson Lynch LLP.
Lewis University is represented by Ashley N. Higginson and Robert T. Zielinski of Miller Canfield Paddock and Stone PLC.
The case is Miller et al. v. Lewis University, case number 1:20-cv-05473, in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois.
--Editing by Alyssa Miller.
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