NJ Judge Says Student’s Tuition Reimbursement Claims Over Virus Failed

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Law360 (May 27, 2021, 8:01 p.m. EDT) – A New Jersey federal judge on Thursday dismissed a class action lawsuit proposed by a Seton Hall University student seeking a partial refund of tuition fees due to the cancellation of class in person due to the COVID -19 pandemic, believing the school has done what it can to catch up with the students.

U.S. District Judge Madeline Cox Arleo shut down Hannah Kostic’s claim that the school violated its contract to provide in-person classes in return for payment of tuition, citing state case law concluding that isolated provisions in a student manual or course catalog do not give rise to an express contractual relationship.

Rather, the courts view these claims under the “quasi-contract” theory which recognizes that a university acted in good faith and treated its students fairly, according to the ruling. But Kostic has not alleged contrary facts about Seton Hall, according to the ruling.

Seton Hall has suspended the in-person instruction to comply with Governor Phil Murphy’s declaration of emergency and “protect the health of his students and faculty,” according to the ruling.

“In addition, Seton Hall continued to offer its students the credits earned, ensured that students received their diplomas and offered students more flexibility by expanding its pass / fail procedures,” the ruling says. “The Amended Complaint acknowledges these facts, which refute a finding of bad faith. Therefore, the Amended Complaint did not allege that the Respondent breached a quasi-contractual obligation to Kostic.”

Even though the school’s course catalog has created an express contractual relationship, it does not contain terms requiring in-person instruction, and it also explicitly gives the school the right to make changes to its curriculum “” as certain circumstances require, “” ruling said.

“The transition of courses to distance learning due to the COVID-19 pandemic is undoubtedly within the authority of Seton Hall reserved in the course catalog,” the decision reads.

New Jersey courts have consistently come to this conclusion, Arleo J. noted, citing Dougherty v. Drew University. In Dougherty, which involved nearly identical allegations, U.S. District Judge Kevin McNulty ruled in April that Drew’s transition to virtual education in the 2020 school year was permitted under the reservation of rights clause. of the school allowing him to modify his school program.

Kostic argued that the course catalog’s reservation of rights is too broad and not ripe for consideration at this stage of the litigation, but the judge found it “unconvincing,” according to the ruling. The judge was also not convinced by Kostic’s use of other academic publications.

Judge Arleo also said Kostic’s other claims, such as unjustified enrichment and conversion, failed in law.

The complaint was filed in May 2020 with Samuel Schoening as the named complainant. Kostic and his father, Jeffry, replaced Schoening as named complainants in an amended version of the complaint filed in September.

Kostic claimed she paid $ 12,025 in tuition and fees for the spring 2020 semester, when the pandemic swept the country and Governor Murphy issued an executive order in March shutting down non-essential businesses. The courses thereafter were only offered in an online format, according to the amended complaint.

At the time, Kostic was pursuing a degree in audiovisual media, with a concentration in sound production and a minor in sports media.

“Seton Hall’s audio and visual media, sound production and sports media programs rely heavily on in-person instruction, peer collaboration and access to the Seton Hall facilities.” None of these resources were available to Ms. Kostic while the in-person classes were suspended, ”says the amended complaint.

Kostic claimed a pro rata portion of the tuition fee and the fee for the semester portion when classes moved online and campus services were no longer provided.

Seton Hall in August request the court dismissed the original complaint, saying that allegations of “educational misconduct” are prohibited under state law.

Lawyers for the parties did not immediately respond to requests for comment on Thursday.

Kostic is represented by Joseph I. Marchese, Philip L. Fraietta and Sarah N. Westcot of Bursor & Fisher PA.

Seton Hall is represented by Angelo A. Stio III, Michael E. Baughman and Robyn R. English-Mezzino of Troutman Pepper Hamilton Sanders LLP.

The case is Samuel Schoening v. Seton Hall University, case number 2: 20-cv-05566, in the United States District Court for the District of New Jersey.

– Additional reports from Bill Wichert. Edited by Janice Carter Brown.

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