Date March 4, 2021
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Federal court dismisses claims seeking tuition refunds in class action complaint

The court ruled that COVID-19 “upended countless aspects of our society’s usual and customary practices” and that students are not entitled to any tuition refund based on Brown’s transition to remote learning in March 2020.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — A federal court has dismissed a series of claims from students who filed a lawsuit alleging they were entitled to a tuition refund after the COVID-19 pandemic forced Brown in March 2020 to transition to remote learning for the remainder of its Spring 2020 semester.

In response to Brown’s motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim, Judge John J. McConnell Jr. of the U.S. District Court in Rhode Island issued a March 4, 2021, court order that dismissed breach of contract and tort claims in Choi et. al v. Brown related to payment of tuition.

In dismissing the tuition claims, McConnell noted that “no plausible reading” of Brown’s course catalogs, student handbooks, policies, marketing or other materials offer a contractual promise for in-person education. And he emphasized that the University explicitly reserved the right to alter the administration of its academic offerings.

McConnell noted that the reality of the COVID-19 pandemic contrasted particularly with the plaintiffs’ claims that Brown’s “usual and customary practice of providing on-campus courses” contributed to an expectation that Brown would provide an on-campus educational experience.

“While this Court’s central finding is that nothing in the complaint indicates a contractual obligation for Brown to hold in-person programs, the unique nature of this moment warrants emphasis,” he wrote in his decision, which dismissed similar claims against three other Rhode Island universities as part of a consolidated order.

“Brown, and other Defendants were responding to the remarkable circumstances of this pandemic — which has upended countless aspects of our society’s usual and customary practices. One can reasonably infer that the universities reserved their rights for situations just like what occurred in 2020 — unexpected events, in this case a global pandemic.”

Brown successfully argued in its motion to dismiss that despite the circumstances brought on by the pandemic, the University continued to provide students with a world-class education and students continued to learn remotely as they earned academic credit toward completion of their degrees.

The case is a class action filed by the plaintiffs on behalf of students who paid Brown tuition, fees and/or room and board for the Spring 2020 semester. Following the March 4 order, the only remaining claim to be litigated in the matter relates to the plaintiffs’ claims to partial refund of certain fees.

While the University refunded unused room and board and recreation fees after transitioning to remote instruction, the court ruled that the plaintiffs alleged plausible claims that they expected certain services, such as student activities, in exchange for fees paid. This is the only issue left to be litigated, and the court established deadlines for discovery.

The court’s decision is available in full on the web.