Court Rules in Student’s COVID-19 ‘Virtual Education’ Case Against Monmouth University

Last Thursday, the District of New Jersey issued a decision on Monmouth University’s motion for reconsideration of the court’s June 2021 opinion, this time, partly granting the educational institution’s request. Previously, Judge Michael A. Shipp permitted the plaintiffs’ allegation that they overpaid for virtual education to proceed under a theory of quasi-contract.

The case arose after the plaintiffs, a student at the Long Branch, New Jersey university and her mother, filed suit, apparently dissatisfied with the school’s forced online educational offerings, instituted after in-person schooling was banned by gubernatorial pandemic order. The court concluded that the complaint sufficiently alleged that Monmouth “‘acted arbitrarily and other than in good faith by failing to reduce the cost per credit due to the remote instruction.’”

In last week’s decision, the court addressed several threshold points before turning to the substance of Monmouth’s motion. Judge Shipp reiterated that the case is “not about Monmouth’s decision to cancel in-person classes… [but] Monmouth’s decision to charge the same tuition and fees following its closure.” 

Further, the court said that “this matter concerns the benefits students expected to receive, in exchange for paying tuition and fees, upon enrolling in an institution of higher learning.” The court noted that certain benefits are expected, such as “access to on-campus facilities, participation in on-campus extracurricular events, facetime with professors in class and office hours, and myriad other features.”

In last week’s opinion, the court declined to reconsider its finding about Monmouth’s alleged arbitrary action. The court pointed to the operative complaint, which explains that prior to the pandemic, “Monmouth did not offer online undergraduate degrees and offered limited undergraduate and graduate virtual coursework.” As such, and drawing inferences in the plaintiffs’ favor, the court said it could reasonably infer that Monmouth was not prepared to offer widespread virtual courses at the onset of the pandemic and therefore may have considered reducing the costs of those courses, yet chose to charge the same for virtual and in-person classes in the Spring 2020 semester. 

Judge Shipp noted that this decision was in contrast to the defendant’s decision to reduce tuition for the Summer 2020 semester by 15%, thereby potentially demonstrating the university’s own belief that the online-only courses were worth less.

The court did however reconsider its ruling in favor of the plaintiffs regarding their conversion tort claim, concluding that previously it committed a clear error of law. Judge Shipp held that the plaintiffs failed to allege tortious conduct extraneous to the contract, instead relying exclusively on a quasi-contract theory. In turn, the economic loss doctrine barred the plaintiffs’ claims, the opinion said.

The plaintiffs are represented by Bursor & Fisher P.A. and Monmouth by Troutman Pepper Hamilton  Sanders LLP.