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University that promised 'hands on' learning will have to defend itself in court against lawsuit over coronavirus-related switch to online classes

A federal judge today refused to dismiss a lawsuit by Brandeis University students over last year's switch to online classes, saying the issue is not whether such education sucks but whether the school had a contract with students to provide in-person learning.

The distinction is important because Massachusetts law prohibits lawsuits over "educational malpractice," and Brandeis had used that as one of it arguments for why US District Court Judge Nathaniel Gorton should dismiss the class action.

Although one of the students, named only with a pseudonym, did initially allege inferior education, in the form of professors who couldn't figure out how to use online platforms, Gorton said the current complaint, which lists another plaintiff as well, is not focused on that but instead on an alleged breach of contract - the students say they were promised in-person classes and the university essentially reneged on that, even if for a public-health reason.

The complaint challenges neither the substance nor the quality of the specific online courses or curriculum provided by Brandeis. ...

Moreover, plaintiffs do not complain that the online education provided by Brandeis was ineffective, or that they were unable to learn the relevant subject matter or earn academic credits. ... Instead, plaintiffs seek the reimbursement for services for which they purportedly bargained and paid, i.e. in-person instruction and access to on-campus facilities. ...

Such claims sound in contract, not educational malpractice, and are therefore justiciable.

Gorton said the students made a plausible enough case to let them continue to press their claim for damages. Brandeis said there was no contract :to provide exclusively in-person instruction under all circumstances, let alone during a pandemic," but Gorton said that in a case like this, a contract includes promises made to students through course listings and university bulletins:

The University Bulletin, for instance, states that Brandeis offers “hands-on experience” and "state-of-the-art studios". The course listings, furthermore, reference specific locations on campus at which each class is scheduled to take place. Finally, plaintiffs contend that tuition and fees for online courses and programs are lower than those for in-person courses and programs, thereby indicating that online and in-person learning is differentiated.

And so:

Here, the factual allegations in the complaint support the inference that Brandeis should have reasonably expected its prospective students to understand its promotion of "hands-on experience" and "state-of-the-art studios", among other things, to be an offer of in-person instruction and on-campus facilities and experience. The complaint plausibly submits, furthermore, that students paid the (higher) on-campus tuition and fees charged for the Spring, 2020, academic term and registered for on-campus courses in consideration for receiving such services, hence forming a contract. ...

Although Brandeis has reserved the right to make some changes to its course offerings, this Court cannot, at this stage of the litigation, rule as a matter of law that the disclaimer includes the right to convert all in-person courses to an online format.

PDF icon Complete ruling151.71 KB


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