Court reverses decision to dismiss lawsuit against Baylor by student seeking refunds over pandemic shutdowns
Lawsuit sought refunds for tuition, parking, housing, dining and other costs associated with attending the private college
WACO, Texas (KWTX) - A federal appeals court has reversed a decision by U.S. District Judge Alan Albright of Waco to dismiss a lawsuit against Baylor University filed by a student seeking refunds and other compensation as a result of pandemic-related shutdowns by the university.
In a 42-page opinion issued earlier this week, a three-judge panel of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed a portion of Albright’s March 2021 order, affirmed part of it and sent the case back to Albright’s court for further action consistent with the appellate court’s directions.
Allison King, a Baylor student from McAllen, alleges breach of contract and unjust enrichment by Baylor. Her lawsuit, similar to hundreds like it filed across the country in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, sought refunds for tuition, parking, housing, dining and other costs associated with attending the private Baptist university after it converted temporarily to online-only classes during the 2020 spring semester.
The panel said that Albright was wrong for finding that Baylor’s Financial Responsibility Agreement with students is “clear and unambiguous,” and “extinguishes any implied promise of in-person instruction.” The issue needs to be addressed further, the court ruled and sent the case back to Albright.
The judges agreed that Albright was correct in dismissing King’s unjust enrichment claims.
Baylor officials released a statement about the appellate court’s ruling.
“Baylor, like almost every other university in America, in moving classes online during the second half of the Spring 2020 semester, acted on the rapidly-evolving information available in order to continue providing educational services in a time of global pandemic and under the public health orders in place so that students could complete their courses in a safe and healthy manner,” the statement says.”Baylor stands by that decision. We’re pleased that the Fifth Circuit rejected significant portions of the plaintiff’s case and recognized that Baylor has several potentially viable defenses that today’s decision did not address. We look forward to presenting those defenses to the district court and are confident the district court will once again dismiss the claims in this lawsuit.”
King’s attorney, Roy T. Willey IV, of Charleston, South Carolina, was not available Thursday. However, his office sent a statement on the 5th Circuit’s ruling.
“We agree with the 5th Circuit’s decision and look forward to getting full justice for the students back in the district court,” the statement said.
Willey’s firm has filed about 40 similar lawsuits against colleges and universities across the country.
Circuit Judge Edith H. Jones notes in her opinion that King alleges she “lost approximately half of the Spring 2020 semester’s on-campus classes, activities and meals.” She alleges Baylor could have remedied these losses by refunding tuition and fees along with meal plans and dining dollars.
Baylor spokesperson Jason Cook has said Baylor refunded “millions of dollars” in housing, dining and parking balances to students for the 2020 spring semester. Even though instruction was limited to online, students still had interaction with their professors and were given academic credit for coursework, Cook said.
“Baylor University stands by the decisions that were made during the spring semester as part of an unprecedented time for our country and all of higher education,” according to a statement from the school. “In a time where businesses and other organizations shut their doors from coast to coast, Baylor stepped up on behalf of our students through many unique, creative and sacrificial ways to fulfill our mission and provide educational services during a pandemic not experienced in more than 100 years.”
Baylor did not refund tuition, and Jones wrote that King complains that she “paid tuition for an on-campus experience with in-person instruction and access to on-campus facilities.” King said Baylor charges significantly less for online programs and alleges Baylor breached its implied contract with her by not refunding the difference between the amount she paid for in-person educational services and the amount it would have charged for a half-semester of online instruction.
To illustrate that point, King claims that a student seeking an MBA from Baylor through the traditional on-campus program would have been charged about $3,570 per term hour, while the same student seeking the same degree through Baylor’s online MBA program would have been charged $1,068 per term hour, or 70 percent less.
King concedes, Jones wrote in her opinion, that there was no difference in “quality between the in-person, on-campus education at Baylor vs. the online-only education from Baylor. Instead, King emphasizes “the simple premise that the in-person, on-campus educational experience commands a higher price than the online-only educational experience.”
“In other words, King is upset about the price she paid for, as opposed to the qualify of, Baylor’s online classes,” Jones wrote.
King also complains that Baylor chose not to refund money paid for certain fees, despite the fact that the general student fee, course lab fee and chapel fee, specifically cover on-campus facilities and activities.
Circuit Judge Stuart Kyle Duncan, in a concurring opinion, puts it another way. He said King’s claims that Baylor “unilaterally changed her bargain with the school” might have merit.
“Maybe Baylor has ironclad defenses to these claims, but we aren’t there yet,” Duncan wrote. “We’re only at the motion to dismiss phase where King’s allegations are taken as true. And as she alleges a straightforward breach of contract claim: I paid for something, you changed the deal to give me something worth less, and I want some money back. Many courts around the country, faced with similar allegations, have refused to dismiss them.
“Yet the district court threw King’s claims out. Why? It thought Baylor never agreed to provide ‘in-person instruction’ and “expressly’ reserved an absolute right to alter class offerings in response to catastrophes like a pandemic. Nonsense. Baylor could have written contracts with those escape hatches, but it didn’t No contract Baylor points to says anything of the sort.” Duncan’s opinion states.
Duncan writes that Albright “misread” the FRA’s merger clause, which he said gives Baylor the right to respond to “catastrophic exigencies” like floods, tornadoes or widespread illness.
“That is all wrong,” Duncan writes. “The merger clause doesn’t breathe a word giving Baylor carte blanche to change how it offers courses. It says nothing about floods, tornadoes, diseases, or other catastrophes. It doesn’t contain force majeure or ‘act of God’ language. So, it’s not true that ‘the merger clause expressly contemplates’ Baylor’s absolute right to alter course delivery in an emergency.”
King’s lawsuit said she paid $21,421 to cover spring semester tuition, plus $2,261 for a general student fee, $50 for lab fees, $90 for chapel fees and $1,773 for a meal plan.
The lawsuit alleged she was deprived of many aspects of college life after Baylor closed its campus March 16, 2020, including Big 12 sporting events, access to the 156,000-square-foot McLane Student Life Center and activities with sororities and fraternities, religious groups, honor societies and more.
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