Law360 (March 23, 2021, 11:14 PM EDT) -- A Florida federal judge on Tuesday denied Lynn University's bid to dismiss putative class allegations from a student's suit over the school's decision not to issue partial tuition and fee refunds after classes moved online due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
In a 13-page order, U.S. District Judge Rodolfo A. Ruiz II ruled that lead plaintiff Raymond Gibson's suit met the pleading requirements needed to maintain class claims at this stage in the litigation.
The judge added that he was unpersuaded by the university's argument that the potential for "individualized damages issues makes class certification impossible in this case."
"The arguments Lynn advances are more appropriate for the class certification stage, at which point the court can consider them with the benefit of a more developed factual record," the order said.
Lynn suspended spring classes in mid-March and held its summer term completely online, according to the suit. The university offered a fractional refund of room and board, after first deducting certain fees, but it has not offered a credit or refund of tuition or fees, according to Gibson. He sued the school last summer and says he and his classmates have paid for access to services that are no longer available.
He pointed to statements in the school's marketing materials that boast of the rich on-campus experience it offers, which goes beyond credit hours and diplomas.
Gibson, who says he is studying criminal justice and lives off campus in Boca Raton, is seeking to represent a class comprising all Florida residents who paid tuition for themselves or another person for in-person education at Lynn for the spring 2020 term.
The university, however, disputes that there was any agreement for exclusively in-person education, and pointed to provisions in the cited agreements that stated there would be no refunds in the event operations were suspended for reasons beyond the control of the university. Lynn has also argued that even if the court finds merits in Gibson's claims, they are not suitable for class treatment because they depend on several subjective, individualized issues and call for similarly subjective and speculative "loss of experience" damages.
In November, the judge rejected the university's argument that Gibson's breach of contract claim was barred because he continued to attend courses remotely and accepted credits. Judge Ruiz said it is unclear whether Gibson knew he could reject the contract at any point during the spring semester.
Gibson then filed an amended complaint and the school moved to ax the suit once again, this time contending that Gibson's contractual claims are individualized and cannot be answered on a class-wide basis.
On Tuesday, however, Judge Ruiz said he didn't buy the university's argument that it was impossible for Gibson's proposed class to satisfy both the commonality and predominance requirements needed for class certification.
The judge said that questions around the contractual terms between Lynn and its students "may be capable of class-wide proof" and acknowledged that at a minimum, making a determination this early on would be "premature."
"It is not clear to the court from the pleadings that the nature of such a contractual relationship is not susceptible to class-wide proof based on the publications, policies, and other materials Lynn provided to its students," the order said.
Students have filed similar suits from coast to coast, claiming colleges and universities should refund fees for access to facilities and services that were no longer available once they closed their campuses as the coronavirus started spreading in March, and should prorate tuition for a second-rate class experience when teaching moved online.
Some schools are having more luck than others. Last week, New York University beat a COVID-19 student tuition refund suit launched by students after the school moved instruction online during the pandemic.
Representatives for the parties did not immediately respond to Law360's requests for comment on Tuesday.
Gibson is represented by Matthew Schultz of Levin Papantonio Thomas Mitchell Rafferty & Proctor PA.
Lynn University is represented by Mendy Halberstam of Jackson Lewis PC.
The case is Gibson v. Lynn University Inc., case number 9:20-cv-81173, in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida.
--Additional reporting by Carolina Bolado and Nathan Hale. Editing by Regan Estes.
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