Two Cases Illustrate Themes of Successful Higher Education Institutions in Breach of Contract Claims for Remote Instruction
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, many higher education institutions transitioned to remote instruction, causing students to attend classes online, move out of dorms, and forego the traditional college experience. As a result, a growing number of students have filed lawsuits across the country, challenging the adequacy of remote instruction and claiming that colleges and universities breached their agreements with students to provide in-person instruction. As these cases work their way through the courts, common themes have emerged. Colleges and universities have been more successful in defending against these claims where their promises as to modality of instruction were more ambiguous and placed little emphasis on campus life in course catalogues and tuition agreements. Additionally, courts have generally declined to hear claims based on educational malpractice, so colleges and universities have seen more success where they can discount claims plaintiffs make based on quality of instruction. Two recent cases in which students sued universities for breach of contract illustrate these themes.
In the first case, Gociman v. Loyola University of Chicago, plaintiffs claimed that the University’s decision to transition to remote instruction in Spring 2020 deprived them of in-person instruction and access to facilities that they were promised. The U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois dismissed the complaint, finding that plaintiffs failed to allege the University made a specific promise to provide in-person instruction. The court reasoned that the breach of contract claim failed for two reasons. First, it ruled that courts across the country have rejected educational malpractice claims where the complaint is based on a university’s breach of an agreement to provide effective education or where a court is tasked with evaluating methods of instruction. Second, plaintiffs failed to allege a specific promise for in-person instruction. Ultimately, the court determined that the University’s residency requirement, course catalogue, and difference in tuition between in-person and online programs did not constitute binding contractual obligations to provide in-person instruction.
In the second case, Hassan v. Fordham University, plaintiffs brought a class action claim on behalf of all students paying tuition for the Spring 2020 semester, a portion of which the University offered only remote instruction. Plaintiffs claimed that remote educational opportunities were subpar in relation to in-person education and that they were entitled to a refund for in-person instruction, facilities, access, and opportunities missed through remote instruction. Ultimately, the Southern District of New York dismissed the lawsuit, finding that plaintiffs failed to identify a specific promise from the University to provide in-person instruction or any breach of contract. Similar to the court in Gociman, the court reasoned that New York’s public policy precludes lawsuits that are based on educational malpractice claims. The court also held that the plaintiffs failed to state a breach of contract claim because the plaintiff did not allege an agreement for certain specified services. In New York, students can sue universities for breach of contract if the contract with the university indicates that specific services will be provided, such as number of hours of instruction, and the university fails to satisfy that obligation. Here, the court found that the University did not specifically promise in-person educational services, as there was no indication that course locations indicated in the course catalogue were not subject to change, that the University had ceded its right to change the modality of instruction, or that its attendance policy made distinctions among different modes of instruction.
These cases illustrate successful defenses colleges and universities have used in breach of contract and educational malpractice claims brought by students as a result of online or remote instruction during the COVID-19 pandemic. Higher education institutions named as defendants in similar cases should emphasize any claims based on educational malpractice, as courts across the country have generally deferred to educators to determine modality of instruction and declined to hear such claims. Additionally, these cases serve as a lesson to colleges and universities to provide more ambiguous promises in course catalogues, tuition agreements, etc. regarding modality of instruction, should another circumstance for these types of claims arise in the future.
If you have any questions regarding these decisions, please contact the author of this post or any other Franczek attorney.