A federal judge granted preliminary approval of a $1.5 million settlement in a class action lawsuit, which three students brought against the University seeking tuition and fee refunds for the Spring 2020 semester when the University sent students home and switched to remote learning at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The plaintiffs argued that moving to online classes and sending students home constituted a breach of contract, unjust enrichment and conversion — deprival of personal property from an owner without consent — which entitled students to a refund, The Herald previously reported.
The three plaintiffs in the class action suit will each receive no more than $2,000 in compensation, and up to 30% of the settlement fund will go to attorney fees, to be determined at the Jan. 10 hearing, according to court documents. The rest of the compensation will be divided among the nearly 10,000 students who were enrolled at Brown during the spring 2020 semester.
A final approval hearing is scheduled to be held Jan. 10, 2023, according to court documents.
A student first filed the lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the District of Rhode Island in April 2020, The Herald previously reported. Though the University committed to refunding 50 percent of students’ room and board fees for the semester, the University chose not to refund tuition because classes continued remotely.
In September 2020, the University filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit, The Herald previously reported. A U.S. District Court in Rhode Island judge ruled in favor of it in March 2021. In April 2022, students appealed the decision to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit before reaching a settlement agreement with the University, according to court documents.
Though the University agreed to the settlement, Brown denies any wrongdoing.
“The discovery process and court decisions showed there was no evidence that Brown had violated students’ rights,” University Spokesperson Brian Clark wrote in an email to The Herald. “Despite the circumstances brought on by the pandemic, the University continued to provide students with a world-class education, and students continued to learn remotely as they earned academic credit toward completion of their degrees. Brown appropriately refunded unused room, board and recreation fees, and continued to provide health care and campus activities services funded by other student fees.”
“While Brown remains fully confident in its Spring 2020 decisions on tuition and fees, and all court rulings in the case have decided in the University’s favor, the settlement offers a more productive resolution than a protracted litigation process that would require financial and time investments better reserved for supporting student success on campus,” Clark added.
Nationally, college students have filed over 300 class action lawsuits accusing their institutions of breaching contract or unjustly enriching themselves through the transition to online classes and reduced programming at the start of the pandemic.
While judges have largely dismissed such cases, some Universities have reached settlements with students. Last November, Columbia agreed to a $12.5 million settlement in a similar case, and the University of Tampa agreed to a $3.4 million settlement this May.
Caleb Lazar is the senior editor of data desk for The Brown Daily Herald's 133rd Editorial Board.