Court Rejects Philadelphia University Students’ Suit of Covid Tuition Reimbursement

Students of Philadelphia’s Temple University (“Temple”) and University of Pennsylvania (“Penn”) met significant roadblocks in their legal pursuit for tuition refunds from their universities due to the move to remote learning in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic in spring of 2020. Federal courts granted both academic institutions’ motions for dismissal this past April, following a statewide trend of courts siding with universities in similar suits alleging an implied contract for in-person instruction.

Temple undergraduate students filed suit in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania in May of 2020 after the school imposed remote learning in lieu of in-person instruction in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Although Temple offered prorated refunds for on-campus housing, parking, and meal plans, the school did not offer tuition reimbursement for remote learning. Students pled claims of unjust enrichment and breach of contract for the interruption of in-person instruction.

U.S. District Judge John M. Gallagher granted Temple’s motion for dismissal, siding with the university’s argument that students signed a contract to pay full tuition for uninterrupted coursework. In the tuition contract, the university did not specify the mode of instruction by which coursework would be provided and therefore did not breach the contract by moving to remote coursework. Judge Gallagher also dismissed the unjust enrichment claim pursuant to Pennsylvania law which does not permit such claims where there is a written contract.

Undergraduate students at Penn filed a similar suit alleging the university breached its contract by charging full tuition and fees while keeping students off-campus for remote instruction in response to the pandemic. Students pointed to marketing materials, course catalogs, and student handbooks promoting the on-campus experience, benefits of schooling in Philadelphia, and proximity to employers as evidence of an implied contractual promise of in-person instruction. Additionally, the students alleged that being charged for general, clinical, and technological fees despite suspension of on-campus activities was a breach of contract because many of the resources and services were not available off-campus.

U.S. District Judge Timothy J. Savage partially dismissed the students’ suit, agreeing with the university that promotions of the on-campus experience were not a part of the contract for payment of full tuition and that universities reserve the flexibility “to suspend operations in the event of an emergency.”  The suit for reimbursement of fees, however, was allowed to move forward as some fees did contain a specific promise for in-person services and resources.

In the Western District of Pennsylvania, U.S. District Judge William S. Stickman IV has already cited the decisions in the Temple and Penn suits while dismissing a similar claim against the University of Pittsburgh, indicating the trend favoring the universities is likely to continue in Pennsylvania.

BIO: Therese Gildea (LAW ’23) is a student editor for the 10-Q.

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