Federal court dismisses claims seeking additional fee refunds in class action complaint

The court ruled that Brown continued to offer services for which it charged fees, even as they took on a different form than could have been anticipated before COVID-19 forced a transition to remote learning in March 2020.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — A federal court has decided in Brown University’s favor in a lawsuit filed by students who alleged they were entitled to fee refunds after the COVID-19 pandemic forced Brown in March 2020 to transition to remote learning for the remainder of its semester.

Judge John J. McConnell Jr. of the U.S. District Court in Rhode Island granted Brown’s motion for summary judgment, dismissing all remaining claims in Choi et. al v. Brown and noting that no reasonable jury could decide in the plaintiffs’ favor.

The case was a class action filed by current and former students on behalf of students enrolled in the Spring 2020 semester. While the University refunded unused room and board and recreation fees after transitioning to remote instruction, the students claimed a breach of contract because some fees (including a Student Activity Fee, Nonresident Fee and Health Services Fee) were not refunded.

Brown successfully established in its motion that despite the circumstances brought on by the pandemic and transition to remote learning, the University continued to provide the services in question.

“There is no question that the exigencies raised by COVID-19 have proven difficult for both students and educational institutions…” McConnell wrote in his decision in Brown’s favor. “There is no evidence that Brown did not provide the services for which the students contracted. Although the services took on a different form than either party could have reasonably anticipated at the start of the semester, there is no evidence that Brown breached its contract with Plaintiffs or was unduly enriched. As a result, the Court grants Defendant’s Motion for Summary Judgment as to all counts.”

McConnell’s decision analyzed the plaintiffs’ claims on four separate fees in question, including the allegation that Brown did not provide students with health services after transitioning to remote learning.

“Not only did Health Services remain open, but it also continued to provide the same services that it would have if Brown had been open,” McConnell wrote. “In some capacities, Health Services actually increased the number of services it provided. The evidence is undisputed that Plaintiffs obtained the benefit of their bargain. Therefore, because Health Services remained open and continued to provide their services to Brown students, no reasonable jury could find that Brown breached their contractual obligations.”

The decision follows a March 2021 ruling in the same case that dismissed a series of claims from students at Brown and three other Rhode Island universities alleging the right to a tuition refund because they weren’t able to attend classes in person. In that ruling, McConnell found that the unique nature of the COVID-19 pandemic warranted emphasis. The court ruled that there was no contractual obligation to provide instruction in person.

“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,” he wrote. “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.”

Both the March 2021 court ruling related to tuition and the March 2022 decision on fees are available in full on the web.

Tags COVID-19