Lynchburg, Virginia’s Liberty University should refund tuition and fees for the Spring 2020 semester shortened by the coronavirus pandemic that the institution initially attempted to downplay, a proposed class action lawsuit argues.
Filed by a pseudonymous student plaintiff, the 22-page lawsuit says that rather than refund those who paid for the Spring 2020 academic semester, Liberty has instead offered a $1,000 credit for the Fall 2020 semester to those who chose not to return to its residence halls once on-campus services and activities were suspended following spring break. Those who will not be returning to Liberty come the fall will receive no credit, the suit says, adding that students looking to receive the fall credit were required to make their decision by March 28, 2020.
“Accordingly, Liberty has improperly retained monies paid by Plaintiff and other Class members for fees, while Plaintiff and other Class members can no longer obtain the value or benefit of the services for which they paid,” the lawsuit alleges, arguing that even if Liberty students had chosen to remain on campus, or if the defendant claimed to have no choice but to shut down, the school has improperly retained funds for services and activities it is not providing.
“No matter the excuse,” the complaint says, “Liberty’s actions are unlawful and unfair, and both law and equity demand disgorgement of the fees and monies paid.”
The lawsuit says that as Liberty’s 2020 spring break came to an end, the school decided to reopen for students to return despite reports of several potential COVID-19 cases on campus and Virginia Governor Ralph Northam declaring a state of emergency on March 12. Liberty’s reopening set off a storm of criticism, the suit says, with media outlets, students and Lynchburg’s mayor alike expressing concerns that the safety of those on campus was being jeopardized amid a public health crisis. Prior to that, the school, in a campus-wide email sent March 17 during spring break, stated that while students were allowed to return to residence halls, they were encouraged to consider staying home, according to the case.
Coinciding with Virginia’s state of emergency was an interview in which Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr. allegedly averred that people were “overacting” to the COVID-19 pandemic. In the interview, the lawsuit says, Falwell also “insinuated that the overreaction was politically motivated” while alleging China and/or North Korea had something to do with the spread of the virus. Two days later, Falwell called one Twitter user, a parent of three Liberty students, a “dummy” after he effectively accused the school of downplaying the severity of the pandemic, according to the complaint.
Liberty’s initial stance on the COVID-19 pandemic notwithstanding, the school, in a response the plaintiff describes as “glacially slow,” ceased providing on-campus services and activities and announced its transition to an online academic format around March 23, the lawsuit says, reiterating that students who lived on campus “were not expressly forced to move out of their housing.” As the suit tells it, on-campus students were effectively forced by Liberty to choose between staying put on a campus that has been shut down or “move home and sacrifice the amounts they have paid for room and board and other campus fees."
Given the ultimatum and very real health risks, most Liberty students chose to leave campus, the case says.
The sum of Liberty’s actions in light of the COVID-19 pandemic amounts to “an illusion” put forth by the school aimed at keeping money that should have been returned to students and their families, the lawsuit alleges. More specifically, the plaintiff claims that Liberty is “in a very real sense” profiting from the COVID-19 pandemic by purporting to keep its campus “open” as a pretext to retain students’ Spring 2020 tuitions and fees while being unable to provide the services for which money has already been paid.
“Liberty’s decision to tell its students that they could remain on campus to continue to use their housing, meal plans, parking, and the benefits of the services and activities for which their fees paid, was only illusory and empty—because there were no more on-campus classes—but it was also extremely dangerous and irresponsible,” the case scathes.
The lawsuit looks to cover students, parents and guardians who paid fees for live, in-person classes at Liberty University for the Spring 2020 semester.
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