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University obtains summary judgment in tuition refund dispute

Daniel Cloherty, Victoria Steinberg, and Rebecca O’Brien recently obtained a summary judgment in U.S. District Court in Massachusetts on behalf of Northeastern University dismissing two putative class actions against it seeking tuition and fee reimbursement following the school’s shift to primarily remote course instruction and closure of many campus facilities because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The students in both cases had no reasonable expectation of in-person instruction or unrestricted access to on-campus facilities during a pandemic, found U.S. District Court Judge Richard G. Stearns, as a result of language in the undergraduate and graduate student handbooks and catalogues permitting the school to change the manner of course instruction for reasons beyond its control.

The plaintiff students conceded that when registering online for Spring 2020 semester classes they acknowledged the availability of the student handbook and catalogue and that they had read them and understood their terms.

“It has long been the rule, and for an important purpose, that a person who signs an acknowledgement that he or she has read and understands the provisions of a document will be held to their word, however strenuously they may later profess ignorance of the contents of that document,” wrote Judge Stearns.

The litigation involving Northeastern University is similar to numerous other lawsuits across the country seeking tuition reimbursement from colleges and universities following the pivot to remote learning caused by the pandemic.