Federal judge again throws out lawsuits filed by Baylor University students demanding refunds over pandemic-related shutdowns
WACO, Texas (KWTX) - For the second time in two years, a federal judge has dismissed breach of contract lawsuits filed by two Baylor University students seeking refunds and other compensation after pandemic-related shutdowns by the university.
In a 26-page opinion signed March 11, U.S. District Judge David Counts, of Alpine, threw out lawsuits from Allison King and Joshua Roop, ruling their breach of contract complaint “does not state a plausible claim for relief.”
U.S. District Judge Alan Albright, of Waco, dismissed King’s lawsuit in March 2021, which her attorney appealed to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. A three-judge panel of the federal appellate court reversed a portion of Albright’s opinion in August 2022, affirmed part of it and sent the case back to Albright’s court for further action consistent with the appellate court’s directions.
Court records indicate the case was transferred to Counts in September 2022.
The lawsuits, 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.
Baylor released a statement about Counts’ opinion.
“We are pleased the district court once again dismissed the claims in this lawsuit,” the statement says. “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 to continue providing educational services in a time of global pandemic and under the public health orders in place so students could complete their courses in a safe and healthy manner. Baylor stands by that decision, and we are pleased with today’s district court order to grant dismissal of the claims.”
King’s attorney, Roy T. Willey IV, of Charleston, South Carolina, did not respond Wednesday to a request for comment on the opinion.
Counts, a Trump appointee who graduated from Texas Tech and St. Mary’s Law School, said in his opinion that the students’ “sole claim against Baylor is simple: they expended thousands of dollars to attend Baylor in person, but when Baylor moved classes online, the rest of the Spring 2020 semester was a lesser product that what plaintiffs paid for.”
Counts noted, however, that the questions are bigger than a simple breach of contract claim. In June 2021, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott signed the Pandemic Liability Protection Act, (PLPA) which the judge said shields educational institutions like Baylor from monetary liability arising from its move to remote learning in response to the pandemic.
The judge ruled the PLPA bars the students from recouping monetary damages in dismissing their claims.
“The early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic created a fog of war, forcing institutions to quickly make life-altering decisions in unpredictable situations,” Counts wrote. “In a flash, Baylor was forced to juggle health, safety, students’ education, liability, and legal compliance – all while blindfolded.”
The judge continued that institutions that went to extremes to protect its students from COVID should be protected from liability by the PLPA.
“Now one could argue, like plaintiffs do, that shielding universities from monetary liability from suits already in progress isn’t fair,” Counts wrote. “The Court doesn’t disagree. But the tests for whether the PLPA is constitutional in this case go deeper than ‘fairness.’ Indeed, as the Court reasons above, the PLPA protects compelling public interests through a narrowly tailored shield against only monetary remedies. And that is enough to bar plaintiff’s claim.”
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.”
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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