Current and former students of the University of Delaware can pursue claims that the school breached contractual obligations and unjustly enriched itself by halting in-person classes and shutting down the campus last spring because of the coronavirus epidemic, a federal judge ruled Friday.
Judge Stephanos Bibas said the students have plausibly alleged that the school promised them in-person classes, activities and services.
“True, the school never promised them expressly. But promises need not be express to be enforceable,” Bibas wrote. “By its statements and history of offering classes in person, the school may have implied a promise to stay in person.”
Bibas also said that, even if the university was justified in breaking any such promise because of COVID-19, it should not be unjustly enriched in doing so, and may have to return the money it saved, if any, when it went online.
The judge rejected the university’s argument that it expressly reserved the right to go online, and that the case involves claims of “educational malpractice,” which many states prohibit.
“The students claim not that their education was bad, but that it breached a promise to provide a specific type of education,” he noted.
Bibas also rejected the university’s argument that parents who paid their children’s tuition and fees do not have standing in the lawsuit because they had no duty to shoulder those costs and were not personally deprived of campus services or forced to take allegedly inferior online courses.
“If the parents are right, they suffered a simpler injury: The school wrongly took their money,” the judge wrote. “It promised to use the money for one purpose but did not.”
The plaintiffs are seeking partial refunds of their spring 2020 tuition and fees.
The students argue that before the pandemic, the school treated in-person and online classes as separate offerings and charged more for some in-person programs than they did for similar online classes. They also argue that the university charged them fees for the gym, student centers, and the health center, sometimes at higher rates than those paid by online students, and that the school kept those fees while denying them the services.
Friday’s ruling came three months after Bibas refused to dismiss two separate lawsuits that the plaintiffs seek to consolidate and pursue as a class-action on behalf of all students who paid for the spring 2020 semester.
University attorneys filed motions to dismiss the lawsuits, arguing that the students failed to identify any specific contractual term that was breached, and that the school has the right to change its policies, fees and other charges without notice.
Bibas noted that, under Delaware law, the relationship between a student and a university is a contractual one. He also said the terms of an education contract may not necessarily be limited to those found in a course catalog or student handbook.
“Although the Delaware Supreme Court has not yet weighed in, many other states recognize that education contracts may contain implied terms,” the judge wrote. “I predict that Delaware would agree.”
“Schools and students show their intent to contract mostly through their actions, not words: the school admits them, the students enroll and pay tuition, and the students go to class,” Bibas added. “The parties did that here, and their acts plausibly created an implied contract.”