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Brown student files class-action lawsuit against University for tuition, fee refunds

Following campus closure, shift to online learning due to COVID-19 pandemic, student seeks repayment for ‘flawed room and board refund plan’

By
Metro Editor
Friday, May 1, 2020

Updated 1:20 p.m. May 1, 2020

A Brown student filed a class-action lawsuit against the University demanding a refund for tuition, fees and/or room and board he claims he was unlawfully charged for because the COVID-19 pandemic forced the University to close its campus and cancel in-person classes.

The lawsuit, which was filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Rhode Island April 30, accuses the University of “breach of contract and unjust enrichment,” according to a press release from Hagens Berman Sobol Shapiro LLP, the law firm representing the student. 

Although the University “has not been served,” Vice President for Communications Cass Cliatt wrote in an email to The Herald, “we are aware of the lawsuit.”

“During this time of a global crisis, no aspect of our daily lives (is) what anyone expected. However, what has not changed is the core value of a Brown education,” Cliatt wrote.

The lawsuit follows the University’s decision to ask students to vacate campus in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. The University committed to issuing credits or refunds for 50 percent of students’ room-and-board fees for the semester adjusted based on the level of parent contribution, The Herald previously reported. With classes continuing remotely, the University chose not to refund tuition.

The lawsuit challenges the University’s “decision-making regarding its refund policy,” according to the complaint. The complaint argues that the University is “denying full refunds or even full prorated refunds to those students that need it most through its flawed room and board refund plan.”

“While students enrolled and paid Defendant for a comprehensive academic experience, Defendant instead offers Plaintiff and the Class Members something far less: a limited online experience presented by Google or Zoom, void of face-to-face faculty and peer interaction, separated from program resources, and barred from facilities vital to study,” the complaint states.

“College students enrolled in classes when the COVID-19 outbreak struck were left with no access to their dorms, to classrooms, campus cafeterias or other facilities they paid to use,” Steve Berman, managing partner of Hagens Berman, said in the press release. “We believe there’s absolutely no reason why they should continue to be stuck holding the bill for tens of thousands of dollars, only to be kicked off campus.”

The firm is also representing students in similar lawsuits against Boston University and Vanderbilt University. At press time, Columbia and Cornell were the only other Ivy League institutions involved in similar lawsuits.

The plaintiff, the first and only class member at press time, is a Rhode Island resident who attends Brown full-time, according to the complaint.

The University “continues to charge for tuition, fees and room and board as if nothing has changed, continuing to reap the financial benefit of millions of dollars from students,” the complaint reads, “despite students’ complete inability to continue school as normal, occupy campus buildings and dormitories or avail themselves of school programs and events.”

The plaintiff is not the first to complain about the University’s refunding policy. The recently formed coalition Students for Equitable Pandemic Response has demanded a full 50 percent refund of room and board for all students, regardless of parental contribution. 

The University charged Brown students, “in whole or in part,” $28,556 in tuition for the spring 2020 semester, according to the lawsuit.

The student wants a jury trial and seeks “damages in the amount of unrefunded tuition, fees and/or room and board,” as well as other relief and damages provided under the law.

Along with Hagens Berman, local Providence firm McIntyre Tate LLP is representing the University student.

This is a developing story. Check back for updates.

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  1. Forever Brown says:

    I’m 1000% in favor of the plaintiff here. The issue raised by the lawsuit, and the thing that must be terrifying not just to Brown but many other universities like it, is having to be transparent and really justify why the campus exists in the first place.
    So you’re telling me that the 10-20 friends you walk away with at Brown, and the rare direct experiences you have with faculty in your 4 years are really worth it, and the Ratty food, and the dorms… $70k/year?
    Other than admission into a virtual club with the “Brown” brand on it, how do they justify $280k ? Is history or psych or computer science or *any* of the Brown curricula really any different than what you can get, even as good as, what you can do online? Perhaps if you need a path into med school, or law school, but what’s that portion of the graduates?
    Well, I can tell you, many seniors are discovering they can be more efficient online rather than on-campus. And not occupy such expensive accommodations in the process. It’s just so obvious how this shutting of Brown exposes the costs imposed.

    The other question is: who really benefited from the closing of the University? Was COVID really a threat to a healthy resilient student population? No, it was not. The threat was sending healthy corona-positive kids home to grandma and the parents. Which is what Brown did. Let me see… ‘seems like the real beneficiaries are once again, Paxson, the administration, and the professors. Shocker. They protected themselves, reduced their workload, and claimed virtue and prudence all the while. Universities are amazing institutions.

    • Obviously, yes, that is why the plaintiff is suing because they do want to be on campus, do want to live in the forms, do want to eat at the Ratty, and do want to interact with other Brown students. This is for six weeks of one semester. If you don’t think the Covid was too much of an issue, certainly working from home for six weeks should not be a big deal.

      • If the plaintiffs prevail, students will get a few thousand dollars back. Brown will have to raise tuition or cut student services to make up for the already immense budget shortfall. Brown will likely have to pay hundreds of thousands in legal fees even if they prevail. Any way you spin it, this will punish future students who will have to deal with the increased tuition and decreased services.

        I don’t think the students realize that the lawyers will take a large amount of any money they recover so there is now way they will personally receive the demanded ~25k.

  2. God bless the student initiating this lawsuit!

    Brown has led the college community, almost bragging that it is one of the most expensive schools to attend.

    Brown has also suffered chronic budget deficits which it tries to patch up with new fundraising. And the donors keep buying into this charade: Brown increases expenses (primarily through administrative staff hires) and Brown alums bail them out!

    I doubt that Christina Paxson understands the urgent need for change at Brown. In fact, Christina Paxson is mired the template of a 19th Century university. She doesn’t understand that Brown and tertiary education in general must change in order to respond to new challenges–and new opportunities.

    I’m afraid that Brown is mired in its “spend more, charge more” mentality, with little regard for students, professors or its competitive position.

    Wake up, Paxson! “The times they are a’changin'”

    John Lonergan
    Brown AB 1972, Harvard MBA ’76, venture capitalist, educational reformer, author and general rabble rouser

    • You are saying the exact opposite of what the law students are saying. You always post you want Brown to “join the twenty first century” and become a big online school with online virtual degrees and teaching. The students are suing for the exact opposite, they want nothing on line and only want intimate in person classes and want to use campus facilities.

    • Reynolds Woodcock '13 says:

      Do you ever tire of being a buffoon?

  3. Anne Hird, Ph.D. says:

    There is a simple solution to this problem: colleges & universities could offer a tuition refund with no course credit option. University administrators and faculty nationwide are doing everything in their power to help students complete the academic year and stay on track for degree completion. Students cannot expect to get a tuition refund, even for half the semester, and still get credit for the courses.

  4. Nice Article. I’m more impressed with the responses

  5. Eric Yabu says:

    I sympathize with the universities who are no doubt feeling the financial pain. However, these students are clearly not getting the education nor experience that they signed up and paid for. I don’t think a full tuition refund is in order as they are receiving an education online, but there certainly should be some reimbursement to compensate for the lack of access to laboratories for lab courses, libraries, athletic facilities (especially for recruited athletes), and health services. So far, Brown has only issued refunds for unused meal plan credits.

    Eric Yabu
    Parent of Brown student

  6. Observeer says:

    Law firms specialize in this kind of class action suit. This one seems to be chasing all the universities. I am sure they cannot wait to go after schools this fall that reopen. Anyone who gets COVID-19 will line up to sue. Probably anyone coming to campus is going to have to sign a waiver.

  7. No rules apply during a pandemic. Brown is not responsible for the virus. It is a national emergency just like a wartime. If a war broke out, and students were drafted, Brown is not responsible for that. Brown didn’t close the school, the governor did. These lawsuits will go nowhere. Just law firms trying to make money. You are still getting your credits. Agree with the other poster, you could get your money back in exchange for no credits or access to the university.

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