Ivy League Schools Swept Up In COVID-19 Refund Suits

By Hailey Konnath
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Law360 (April 23, 2020, 11:45 PM EDT) -- Ivy League students on Thursday hit Columbia and Cornell universities with lawsuits demanding reimbursement for tuition and fees, adding to a growing list of students seeking refunds from their institutions in the wake of coronavirus-spurred campus closures.

According to the pair of proposed class actions, both Columbia University and Cornell University have closed their campuses, constructively evicted students and transitioned all classes to an online format as the world battles the pandemic. However, the schools either refused to provide reimbursement for tuition, fees and other costs for services the schools are no longer providing as the world battles the pandemic or they provided inadequate or arbitrary reimbursement, the students alleged.

An unnamed student is suing Columbia's board of trustees, while named plaintiff Olivia Haynie is taking on Cornell, per the complaints.

"While closing campus and transitioning to online classes was the right thing for [Columbia] to do, this decision deprived plaintiff and the other members of the class from recognizing the benefits of in-person instruction, access to campus facilities, student activities and other benefits and services in exchange for which they had already paid fees and tuition," the Columbia student said.

The Cornell suit looks to represent two classes of thousands of students who claim they are owed either tuition or fees.

Haynie said in her suit that Cornell has not delivered the educational services, facilities, access and opportunities that Haynie and her fellow students contracted and paid for.

"The online learning options being offered to Cornell students are subpar in practically every aspect, from the lack of facilities, materials and access to faculty," she said. "Students have been deprived of the opportunity for collaborative learning and in-person dialogue, feedback and critique."

Haynie is looking to represent an estimated tens of thousands of students that paid spring semester 2020 tuition or fees for services that haven't been provided and whose money hasn't been refunded.

The pair of cases come in the wake of several similar suits lodged in recent weeks. On Wednesday, a student accused Pace University, a private school in New York, of withholding reimbursement. Xaviera Marbury noted the school's estimated $182 million endowment and the federal government's coronavirus aid, but said she was only reimbursed for roughly 20% of her housing payments.

"This refund is arbitrary and inadequate given that plaintiff and other members of the on-campus housing class have been and will be deprived of roughly 50% of the on-campus housing time for which they have already bargained and paid," Marbury said.

And earlier this week, Michigan State University students filed a suit demanding adequate restitution after their untimely departures from campus.

Glenn Phillips, counsel for the Michigan State students, said in a statement that the school's decision is understandable from a public health perspective.

"But the university's refund policy is unfair to students," he added. "Students paid for an on-campus experience and received an off-campus experience for one-quarter of the academic year, which amounts to an educational bait-and-switch."

Emily Gerkin Guerrant, a spokesperson for Michigan State, told Law360 on Thursday that the school hadn't yet been served and declined to comment on pending litigation.

"However, I can say that MSU is delivering what students pay for: courses taught by highly qualified faculty, tutoring services, faculty office hours, academic advising, financial aid and access to our libraries," she said. 

Guerrant added that the university has provided students with credits or prorations for many on-campus expenses while also incurring many additional costs as the school quickly transitions to distanced learning. 

"We don't negate that this has been a difficult time for our university, especially for our students," she said. 

Roy Willey, counsel for both the Columbia and Pace students, said in a separate statement that the cases are about "basic fairness."

"[I]t's not fair for the universities with multi-million dollar endowments to keep all of the money that students and their families have paid," he said. "It is not fair to pass the full burden onto students and their families."

Earlier this month, students at the University of Miami and Drexel University hit their schools with similar claims, alleging they paid for a slew of services they're no longer receiving, including face-to-face interaction with professors, access to campus facilities and hands-on learning.

Columbia declined to comment. Counsel for Haynie and representatives with the other schools didn't immediately return requests for comment late Thursday.

Both the unnamed Columbia student and Marbury are represented by Edward Toptani of Toptani Law PLLC and Eric M. Poulin and Roy T. Willey of Anastopoulo Law Firm LLC. Marbury is also represented by John M. Bradham and Peter B. Katzman of Morea Schwartz Bradham Friedman & Brown LLP.

Haynie is represented by Philip L. Fraietta and Sarah N. Westcot of Bursor & Fisher PA.

Counsel information for the schools was not available Thursday. 

The cases are Student A v. The Board of Trustees of Columbia University in the City of New York, case number 1:20-cv-03208, and Xaviera Marbury v. Pace University, case number 1:20-cv-03210, both in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, and Olivia Haynie v. Cornell University, case number 5:00-at-99999, in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of New York.

--Editing by Michael Watanabe.

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

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Case Information

Case Title

Plaintiff v. Defendant


Case Number

5:00-at-99999

Court

New York Northern

Nature of Suit

Constitutional - State Statute

Judge

Unassigned

Date Filed

November 30, 2006


Case Title

IN RE COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY TUITION REFUND ACTION


Case Number

1:20-cv-03208

Court

New York Southern

Nature of Suit

Contract: Other

Judge

Jesse M. Furman

Date Filed

April 23, 2020


Case Title

Marbury v. Pace University


Case Number

1:20-cv-03210

Court

New York Southern

Nature of Suit

Contract: Other

Judge

Jesse M. Furman

Date Filed

April 23, 2020

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