Federal judge rules students can sue after being charged full tuition for classes shifted online over COVID

A federal judge ruled on Mar. 31 that lawsuits against the University of Delaware can proceed after the university moved students online during the pandemic and still charged full tuition.

Plaintiffs assert that paying full tuition for online classes constituted unjust enrichment and a breach of contract, according to the ruling issued by Judge Stephanos Bibas.

A federal judge is allowing lawsuits to proceed against the University of Delaware (UD) after the school closed its campus in Newark during the spring 2020 semester. Students who took virtual classes during the COVID-19 pandemic want partial tuition reimbursements, according to the Mar. 31 opinion issued by Judge Stephanos Bibas. 

An Apr. 3 report from ABC News shares claims from the two lawsuits, Ninivaggi et al. v. University of Delaware and Russo v. University of Delaware. Campus Reform obtained a copy of the ruling issued by Bibas. 

Plaintiffs assert that paying full tuition for online classes at UD–where students paid less for online classes before the pandemic–constituted unjust enrichment and a breach of contract, according to the ruling. 

“If U. Delaware got a greater benefit than the students, then it was probably unjust for the school to keep the students’ money, as that enrichment has no basis in a valid agreement,” Bibas writes on unjust enrichment, a claim that Cornell Law says arises when only one party fulfills its obligations under a contract. 

“But if an online education in spring 2020 was worth full tuition, then there was no net enrichment,” he continues. 

[RELATED: COVID learning loss will decrease students’ lifetime earnings, Stanford economist argues]

The students and former students suing UD also assert that the university’s contract with students comes with an implied obligation to offer in-person classes. 

“To decide whether holding classes in person was part of the parties’ bargain, I anticipate looking at evidence of how U. Delaware advertised itself and whether students were attending classes in person before the pandemic,” Bibas writes. 

In a statement to Campus Reform, Peter Bothum, UD’s Interim Senior Director of External Relations, says, “The University of Delaware is proud of the remarkable resilience of its students, faculty, and staff to adapt to the unexpected and unprecedented challenges posed by the global pandemic in Spring 2020.” 

”Prioritizing both campus health and academic continuity, and as required by applicable orders, the University quickly and successfully pivoted modalities to online education, leading our students to graduation and launching them to successful careers,” he continues. 

As of Apr. 2022, over 70 universities faced similar lawsuits from students demanding reimbursement after paying full tuition, according to Expert Institute, a consulting company for attorneys. 

The Des Moines Register reported that two Iowa colleges recently settled lawsuits alleging unjust enrichment and breach of contract.

[RELATED: Universities are lowering expectations for pandemic-era students]

The students who brought the lawsuits made their case by pointing out “that the colleges marketed themselves with promises about the on-campus experience,” according to the Des Moines Register. They also argued that not all students could move their curricula online, with students studying music missing out on “ensembles, performances, or one-on-one lessons with faculty.”

Campus Reform contacted all relevant parties listed for comment and will update this article accordingly.