NASHVILLE, Tenn.--(BUSINESS WIRE)--A Vanderbilt freshman sued the university in a class-action lawsuit stating it violated state laws in refusing to reimburse students for room and board, tuition and other costs for its spring 2020 semester, despite closing residence halls and offering students a severely limited online learning experience, according to attorneys at Hagens Berman.
According to the lawsuit filed Apr. 27, 2020, in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Tennessee, Nashville Division, Vanderbilt University sent its students home and closed its residence halls, yet continues to charge for tuition, fees and room and board “as if nothing has changed, continuing to reap the financial benefit of millions of dollars from students.” Vanderbilt students remain completely unable to continue school as normal, occupy campus buildings and dormitories, or avail themselves of school programs and events.
The student bringing the lawsuit, referred to as John Doe in the complaint, was a freshman living in Vanderbilt’s student residential housing. The residential campus, requiring a majority of students to live in student housing, is considered an “integral part” of the Vanderbilt education. In total, Doe paid more than $34,000 for the spring 2020 term at Vanderbilt, including tuition, meal plan and housing.
In 2019, Vanderbilt made $319 million in net tuition and fees – a $20 million increase from the year before due to changes in student enrollment, credit hours and board approved increases in tuition rates, according to the lawsuit.
“College students across the nation are in whiplash right now, having been told in many instances to make emergency evacuations of their dorms and residence halls as colleges have shut their doors due to COVID-19,” said Steve Berman, managing partner of Hagens Berman and attorney for students in the class action. “As if the shock of sudden campus closure was not enough, students are now left with holding the bill for amenities they will not receive, often to the tune of tens of thousands of dollars.”
“A college or university cannot in good faith continue to collect millions of dollars from its students while failing to offer them the service they’ve paid for,” Berman added. “We will do everything we can to hold them accountable for the parents, guardians and students left holding the bill amid a global health crisis.”
The online course experience is severely limited, for example, lab courses are difficult to simulate and other courses have shifted to recorded lectures allowing no interactions with professors or classmates, according to the lawsuit. The class action brings claims of breach of contract, unjust enrichment and conversion claims.
The proposed class would include all students enrolled at Vanderbilt for the spring 2020 term who paid in whole or in part tuition, fees and/or room board, but were denied use of and access to in-person instruction and/or campus facilities.
Vanderbilt’s “Arbitrary” Penalties
The lawsuit accuses Vanderbilt of only offering minimal adjustments for housing and meal plans, with arbitrary penalties based on the date students were able to vacate the student residential housing. If students were unable to leave campus before Mar. 30, 2020, Vanderbilt decided students would receive no housing or meal plan reimbursement at all for services they were not utilizing.
“This tiered system based on whether students were able to vacate residence halls in an emergency circumstance with short notice almost ensures that those with less stable housing and living situations were penalized hardest,” Berman said. “We don’t believe anyone should be stuck with the bill, and Vanderbilt’s actions have been particularly devastating to its own community.”
According to the suit, on Mar. 11, 2020, the suit’s plaintiff was informed he should plan to leave campus no later than Mar. 15, 2020 and courses would resume online on Mar. 16, 2020. “With little notice, Plaintiff packed up his course materials and laptop and moved out of residential housing. The majority of his belongings remain in the dorms and he is unsure when he will be able to collect them,” the lawsuit states.
“On March 20, 2020, Plaintiff inquired regarding a refund for tuition, fees, and room and board. The same day he received a response from the Office of the Chancellor that ‘all students who left campus by March 22 will receive adjustments for housing and meals.’ And ‘the university made the decision that tuition and fees will remain the same for the Spring 2020 term, and no tuition rates will be discounted or adjusted due to the current situation.’”
Attorneys say the housing and meal plan adjustments are arbitrary, unfairly prorated, and penalize students by half of the reimbursement if they were unable to leave campus within 12 days, and completely deny reimbursement for services if students were unable to leave campus before Mar. 30, 2020.
Other Affected Universities
Hagens Berman is investigating the rights of those who are currently paying for room and board, and/or tuition at colleges and universities that have been forced to close due to the outbreak of COVID-19. This may include parents, guardians or college students who are paying for their own costs of college.
Despite orders from colleges and universities sending home students and closing campuses, these institutions of higher learning continue to charge for tuition and room and board. Collectively, these institutions are continuing to receive millions from students despite their inability to continue school as normal, or occupy campus buildings and dorms.
Hagens Berman Sobol Shapiro LLP is a consumer-rights class-action law firm with nine offices across the country. The firm’s tenacious drive for plaintiffs’ rights has earned it numerous national accolades, awards and titles of “Most Feared Plaintiff’s Firm,” and MVPs and Trailblazers of class-action law. More about the law firm and its successes can be found at www.hbsslaw.com. Follow the firm for updates and news at @ClassActionLaw.