UMN class-action lawsuit over student fee refunds during pandemic moves closer to trial – Twin Cities
A class-action lawsuit over pandemic-era student-fee refunds at the University of Minnesota is a step closer to trial after a judge rejected the U’s request to decide the case in its favor.
The two lead plaintiffs were Twin Cities students during the spring 2020 semester, when the U shut down the campus and moved classes online in hopes of slowing the spread of the coronavirus.
The U’s Board of Regents voted that spring to issue $35.4 million in refunds. They issued fully pro-rated refunds for housing, dining and parking contracts and various student fees. But students got back only half of their pro-rated fees for student government and student services and no refunds for those related to building improvements and football stadium debt.
Class representatives Steven Staubus and Patrick Hyatte argued that refunds were insufficient.
Hennepin County District Judge Laurie Miller in November certified the case as a class action, which means the case may ultimately lead to larger refunds for over 60,000 students throughout the five-campus system; the U is appealing the certification decision. And earlier this month, Miller mostly denied the U’s motion for summary judgment, which would have ended the case.
Miller noted that judges in similar pandemic-era cases have reached negative conclusions on the question of whether universities’ marketing materials and student handbooks create an “implied contract” with students over the level of services they can expect to receive. Federal courts in New York and Illinois sided with the schools, while a judge in Rhode Island favored the students at the summary judgment stage.
Miller said she found the Rhode Island judge more persuasive, writing that previous Minnesota cases have recognized that “communications between schools and students may give rise to implied contracts.” She added that the U’s own decision to issue partial refunds supports that conclusion.
The judge also declined to issue judgment on the students’ claims related to unjust enrichment.
However, Miller did award summary judgment on a minor issue. Hyatte wanted his fees refunded for ensemble and applied music, but Miller found that would have required her to make a “subjective determination” about whether online music instruction was equivalent to in-person instruction, which is not allowed under Minnesota law.
Miller wrote that her decision is not a finding that the U did anything wrong, adding that the pandemic “necessitated unprecedented measures to continue the educational mission of the University, without endangering those who work there and who are enrolled there.
“The Court merely finds that Plaintiffs have sufficient evidence to proceed on their contract and unjust enrichment claims, to test whether the University adequately refunded the Mandatory Fees paid by students for the 2020 spring semester,” she wrote. “As the University has admitted, Plaintiffs were entitled to receive something in exchange for those fees. And the University made partial refunds, which can be construed as a recognition by the University that it was not delivering what it promised when it collected the Mandatory Fees.”