Lawsuits that students at Indiana University and Purdue University filed seeking tuition and fee refunds after both schools switched to online classes early in the COVID-19 pandemic can proceed to trial, the state appeals court ruled.
A three-judge panel of the appellate court ruled unanimously Thursday there’s a sufficient basis for the plaintiffs to pursue their claims that the schools failed to deliver on their contracted promises to provide an in-person learning experience, The (Northwest Indiana) Times reported.
Both IU and Purdue stopped in-person instruction and moved to online learning in March 2020, with two months left in the spring semester, after Republican Gov. Eric Holcomb declared COVID-19 a statewide public health emergency.
Students at the universities filed class-action complaints alleging the schools breached their contractual promises for in-person instruction, services, activities, housing and meals.
They are seeking prorated refunds of tuition, student fees and room and board fees as damages, alleging that the schools were unjustly enriched by retaining those funds.
The lawsuits note that both universities, which eventually resumed in-person instruction, offer “in-person, hands-on programs,” as well as “fully online distance-learning programs,” which are marketed and priced “as separate and distinct products.”
Thursday's ruling affirming the students' lawsuits involved a consolidated appeal the schools filed over rulings in which trial court judges either entirely or partially denied their motions to dismiss the students' claims, the Indiana Lawyer reported.
Appeals Court Judge Terry Crone wrote in the court's ruling that the students’ complaints “are sufficient to state a claim that the universities intended to bind themselves to providing in-person education in exchange for retaining plaintiffs’ entire tuition payments for traditional on-campus degree programs."
The universities contend that Holcomb’s executive orders made it legally impossible for them to fulfill their end of any bargain for in-person instruction, according to court records.
But in his ruling, Crone said that’s a defense for the universities to offer at trial.
He also rejected the schools’ attempt to invoke a state law enacted in 2021 by the Republican-controlled General Assembly that retroactively shields businesses and other institutions, including universities, from lawsuits by people blaming them for contracting COVID-19.