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Students Trade in Textbooks for Lawsuits as COVID-19 Class-Action Wave Hits Higher Education


Students Trade in Textbooks for Lawsuits as COVID-19 Class-Action Wave Hits Higher Education

School may be out for summer, but many educational institutions will be busy defending lawsuits.

Just as COVID-19 has disrupted businesses, it has also disrupted the higher education ecosystem. In recent weeks college students across the nation finished up the spring 2020 semester, which was, for many, a different experience.

In mid-March, right around spring break, educational institutions, including colleges and universities, started transitioning to online learning platforms in response to the COVID-19 pandemic and governmental shutdown orders. As a result, instead of in face-to-face classroom instruction, students and professors alike needed to adapt quickly to virtual instruction.

Not all have welcomed the move from classrooms to videoconferences. In particular, a wave of class-action lawsuits have been filed in various jurisdictions across the country on behalf of students against their respective educational institutions in response to the online instruction. Several of these complaints are nearly identical, merely using the “find and replace” feature to insert the names of different college defendants.

In a nutshell, the students seek partial reimbursement for tuition and fees paid for the spring 2020 semester on a prorated basis, arguing that the virtual instruction was inferior to in-classroom learning and that they lost the benefit of the on-campus experience that was promised to them.

Understanding Educational Malpractice Claims

The causes of action in the lawsuit vary in name, including but not limited to “breach of contract,” “conversion,” and “unjust enrichment.” While the claims are pled under various legal theories, the nature of the claims are truly what has been coined “educational malpractice,” a legal claim that has been rejected in most jurisdictions across the country for more than 40 years.

There are numerous reasons courts have cited in rejecting these types of claims against educational institutions, including the following:

  1. There is no clear, satisfactory standard of care by which to evaluate an educator or educational institution.
  2. There are uncertainties about causation and damages in relation to other intervening factors including but not limited to a student’s attitude, motivation, temperament, past experience, and home environment.
  3. There would be a potential for a flood of litigation against educational institutions if these claims were allowed to stand.
  4. The claims could like require courts to oversee the day-to-day operations of educational institutions and become immersed in academic decisions and curriculum, areas courts have traditionally steered away from.

Breach of Contract in Context of Higher Education and the COVID-19 Pandemic

For the reasons above, the concept of “malpractice” is clearly unworkable in this context. As stated above, though, some plaintiffs have asserted causes of action for “breach of contract,” which requires a different analysis. There are four elements to breach of contract claims:

  1. The existence of a contract;
  2. A breach of that contract;
  3. Damages flowing therefrom; and
  4. That plaintiff performed its own contractual duties.

Student plaintiffs will have difficulty right out of the gate with the first element of their claim. Specifically, what contract between the educational institution and students exists? Arguably none. Courts are split on whether materials such as catalogs, bulletins, handbooks, regulations, codes of conduct, etc., are enforceable as implied contracts.

More often than not, courts will only permit a breach of contract claim regarding educational services in a couple of situations. If the institution failed in some fundamental aspect, that could potentially give rise to a cause of action. The second is when the institution failed to fulfill a very specific contractual promise.

The student plaintiffs participating in the recent wave of COVID-19 lawsuits have a long road to hoe to try to make their claims stick. Many of the lawsuits will undoubtedly face motions to dismiss given that many of the complaints include bald allegations that cannot withstand scrutiny. Even if the students survive a motion to dismiss, the educational institution defendants will likely attempt to poke holes in and oppose the class certification, which has stringent requirements.

Goldberg Segalla continues to monitor class actions and other lawsuits filed against higher education institutions around the country. For more information on this trend or for immediate guidance, contact: