WORK WITH US
Student’s Suit For Partial Tuition Refund Due To Transition To Virtual Instruction Fails
Chloe Linder (Chloe) was a student at Occidental College during the spring 2020 semester. In response to California Governor Gavin Newsom’s March 4, 2020, COVID-19 state of emergency declaration and March 19, 2020, stay at home order, and Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti’s March 19, 2020, Safer at Home order, Occidental transitioned from in-person instruction to virtual instruction beginning on March 23, 2020, and for the remainder of the spring 2020 semester. Occidental issued a partial refund of the amount paid for room-and-board for the spring semester due to its closure of student residences. Occidental did not provide a refund for any amount of tuition.
Thereafter, Chloe and her father, Steven Lindner (Steven), filed a class-action lawsuit against Occidental on behalf of all individuals who paid tuition and fees for the spring 2020 semester at Occidental, alleging that these individuals are entitled to a partial refund of tuition and fees for that semester because Occidental promised students in-person instruction. Chloe and Steven alleged causes of action for 1) breach of contract; (2) breach of implied contract; (3) unjust enrichment; (4) conversion; and (5) money had and received. Chloe and Steven did not allege that the transition to virtual instruction impacted Chloe’s ability to earn credits towards degree programs or complete any classes.
Steven and Chloe contended that they entered into a contract with Occidental through the 2019-2020 Course Catalog (Catalog) and the course syllabi, which set forth the days of the week, the times, and the locations (building and room number) of each class offered. The Catalog expressly reserves the right to Occidental “to change fees, modify its services, or change its program should economic conditions or national emergency make it necessary to do so” and that “[f]ees, tuition, programs, courses, course content, instructors, and regulations are subject to change without notice.”
Occidental successfully argued that Steven lacked standing to bring the suit against the college. The Court noted that “[o]nce a student reaches the age of majority, courts have routinely held that parents lack standing to bring claims against their adult children’s colleges and universities, even when the parents pay tuition on behalf of their children.” The Court explained that Chloe, who was above the age of majority, Chloe, and not her father, attended Occidental, and Chloe was the beneficiary of any promises that Occidental allegedly made. Further, Steven did not assert that he suffered any separate and distinct injury from the injury Chloe allegedly suffered, namely the transition to virtual instruction. The Court, therefore, dismissed Steven from the suit.
Occidental also successfully argued that all of Chloe’s claims should be dismissed because California case law prohibits challenges to the adequacy of a student’s education; i.e., “educational malpractice” claims. Chloe’s claims are all grounded on the theory that the education she received once Occidental transitioned to virtual instruction due to the COVID-19 pandemic was not equal in value to or in any way equivalent to the in-person instruction she previously received. The Court noted that evaluating Chloe’s claims would require the Court to “make judgments about the quality and value of the education that Occidental provided in the Spring 2020 semester,” and that “the adequacy of teachers and teaching methods are matters entrusted to educators and institutions that regulate them, not to judges and juries.” Therefore, the Court held that Chloe’s “claims are the type of educational malpractice claims that California courts, and courts throughout the country, have rejected.”
Further, Occidental successfully defended against Chloe’s breach of contract claims. The Court noted that it is undisputed that the relationship between Occidental and Chloe is governed by contract, namely the Catalog and other Occidental publications. However, Chloe failed to point to any language in which Occidental promises in-person instruction. In fact, the Catalog expressly states that [f]ees, tuition, programs, courses, course content, instructors, and regulations are subject to change without notice,” and that Occidental has “reserve[d] the right to change fees, modify its services, or change its program should economic conditions or national emergency make it necessary to do so.” Therefore, the Court dismissed all of Chloe’s claims.
Steven J. Lindner v. Occidental College (C.D. Cal., Dec. 11, 2020, No. CV 20-8481-JFW(RAOX)) 2020 WL 7350212.
Schools, universities, and colleges should review documents, contracts, and publications provided to students and their parents, including enrollment contracts, handbooks, and curriculum guides, to confirm that these documents contain force majeure language giving the school the right to make modifications to services, programs, and locations of instruction at any time and do not contain language guaranteeing in-person instruction.