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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’

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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