USF Not Liable For Breach Of Contract For Providing Remote And Hybrid Learning During Pandemic

CATEGORY: Private Education Matters
CLIENT TYPE: Private Education
DATE: Mar 25, 2024

Three undergraduate students were enrolled at the University of San Francisco (USF) for the Spring 2020 semester.  Prior to March 2020, they attended their USF classes in person.  On March 4, 2020, Governor Gavin Newsom declared a state of emergency in response to COVID-19, and on March 16, 2020, the San Francisco Health Officer issued a shelter-in-place order, requiring residents of San Francisco County to remain in their homes, except when engaging in essential activities.  A few days later, the Governor issued an executive order requiring all Californians to stay home except for essential activities.  As a result, USF was prohibited by law from holding large in-person gatherings, and USF suspended all in-person instruction and closed its on-campus facilities. All classes transitioned to distance learning for the remainder of the semester.

In July 2020, USF announced instruction would be primarily remote for the Fall 2020 semester, and in October 2020, USF announced instruction would be primarily remote for the Spring 2021 semester.  Three students filed class action complaints against USF, alleging breach of contract, among other claims.  The students alleged that USF failed to deliver the educational services, facilities, access, and opportunities that they contracted and paid for, and that they were entitled to in-person educational services.

USF moved for summary judgment.  USF argued that the students failed to show any specific promise by USF to provide them with in-person instruction under all circumstances; USF was excused from providing in-person instruction due to state and local orders related to COVID-19; and students were aware that USF would conduct classes either remotely or in a hybrid format during the Fall 2020 and Spring 2021 semesters, prior to paying tuition.

The students argued that USF promised to provide in-person instruction based on language in their admissions letter, such as, that the students would develop amazing friendships and expand their horizons, and would be surrounded by the “best city ever;” inviting students to admitted students’ day; and that USF looks forward to greeting the students on campus.

The students also argued that an implied-in-fact contract was formed based on conduct, custom, usage, and history.  For example, the students argued that USF’s 165-year history of in-person instruction, the course descriptions in the course catalog, and the students’ schedules stating the physical locations and times of in-person classes indicated that USF offered in-person instruction and on-campus facilities.  To note, the USF catalog provided a disclaimer that information contained therein was subject to change and that USF reserved the right to revise its regulations and programs in accordance with academic standards and requirements.

The trial court ruled that the admissions letters did not contain any promise of in-person instruction, nor did they promise exclusively in-person instruction.  The trial court also concluded that the syllabi, student schedules, and course catalogs did not give rise to a binding contract for in-person instruction.  The trial court concluded that the students could not establish a breach based on the failure to provide in-person instruction during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The students appealed, arguing that the contract formed between the students and USF committed USF to provide exclusively in-person instruction.

The Court of Appeals concluded that not all statements in university catalogs and bulletins amount to contractual obligations, rather the analysis focuses on what is reasonable under the circumstances.  Here, the Court of Appeals reasoned that the statements in the admissions letter did not provide a specific promise of exclusive in-person instruction for the duration of the Spring 2020 semester.  The Court of Appeals found that USF’s statements were, at best, specific representations that there would be some in-person instruction and on-campus services in exchange for tuition.  But the Court of Appeals did not find any evidence to support an inference of exclusively in-person instruction under the circumstances of a global health and safety emergency.

The Court of Appeals was also not persuaded that past conduct or custom supported a contract exclusively for in-person instruction.  While USF has generally provided in-person instruction and access to the campus, the students did not identify any historical evidence of times when USF provided in-person instruction during a public health or safety emergency.  Nor did the students identify any evidence indicating an expectation that USF would offer in-person instruction during such emergencies.

The Court of Appeals determined that vague statements in university promotional materials and course catalogs created an expectation of in-person classes but were insufficient to demonstrate a specific contractual promise.

For the Fall 2020 and Spring 2021 Semesters, the Court of Appeals agreed with the trial court, reasoning that tuition for those semesters was not due until after the announcements about remote and hybrid learning were made.  As such, there was no contract for in-person instruction during those semesters.  The Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s ruling.

Note: In this case, the court found that USF’s vague statements in promotional materials and catalogs did not create a contract for in-person learning.  Schools should be mindful, however, that these types of materials could form contractual obligations if they are not carefully worded.

Berlanga v. University of San Francisco (Feb. 29, 2024) ___Cal.App.5th___ [2024 Cal. App. LEXIS 137].

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