Private Universities Leap Over Request To Refund Tuition For Failure To Provide In-Person Instruction


Once every four years we are provided with a leap day in February, and on leap day this year private colleges and universities finally got some good news related to Covid.  When faced with lawsuits regarding tuition remission because of remote learning replacing in-person learning, there has been a split of authority in California federal cases on whether such cases should go to trial.  On February 29, 2024, in Berlanga v. University of San Francisco, 2024 WL 853813 (Case No. CGC-20-584829), the California Court of Appeal weighed in and granted summary adjudication to the college and dismissed a class action requesting tuition remission.

In March of 2020, the students in Berlanga were placed in a remote learning environment by the University once the Governor issued an executive order requiring all Californians to shelter-in-place.  Due to a Covid surge, the University announced in July that instruction in the fall would be primarily remote, and once again in October students were notified that distance learning would continue for the spring 2021 semester.  Class actions were brought against the University for tuition refunds based on contract theories.

The students in essence argued that they had an implied contract based on the following:

  • General statements made in the admissions letter;
  • Course syllabi referencing the physical location of classes;
  • Course descriptions in the course catalog;
  • Student schedules stating physical locations and times of in-person classes; and
  • 165-year history of in-person instruction.

The court dismissed the contract claim because neither the admission letters nor the other documents contained any promise of in-person learning nor did they contain unqualified promises of exclusively in-person instruction.  The court recognized that universities are entitled to some leeway in modifying their programs from time to time to exercise their educational responsibility properly.  While there is an expectation that classes will be conducted in-person, a general expectation does not amount to an enforceable term of a contract.

It appears that California colleges are allowed to have some positive legal news at least once every four years.  While this case is a step in the right direction, private educational institutions should not leap for joy just yet.  This issue is no doubt headed to the California Supreme Court, and there is no guarantee how that august body might rule on this issue.

If you have questions about tuition remission or other issue unique to private educational institutions, contact the author or your usual trusted counsel at AALRR.

This AALRR posting is intended for informational purposes only and should not be relied upon in reaching a conclusion in a particular area of law. Applicability of the legal principles discussed may differ substantially in individual situations. Receipt of this or any other AALRR publication does not create an attorney-client relationship. The Firm is not responsible for inadvertent errors that may occur in the publishing process. 

© 2024 Atkinson, Andelson, Loya, Ruud & Romo



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