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Student files class action lawsuit seeking repayment of Spring semester tuition, fees

A student has filed a class action lawsuit against Duke, alleging that the University “financially damaged” students by switching to remote learning without refunding tuition and student fees. 

The student, a Minnesota resident whose name is not given, filed a complaint May 8 in the U.S. District Court of the Middle District of North Carolina on behalf of himself and students enrolled at Duke who paid “tuition, fees, and/or room and board for in-person instruction and use of campus facilities, but were denied use of and/or access to in-person instruction and/or campus facilities” by the University. 

Starting March 10, Duke moved classes online, restricted student access to campus and closed some facilities to combat the growing threat of COVID-19. The lawsuit alleges that these actions amount to a breach of students’ contract with Duke that included payment of tuition and fees.

“While students enrolled and paid Defendant for a comprehensive academic experience, Defendant instead offers Plaintiff and Class Members something far less: a limited online experience presented by Google or Zoom, void of face-to-face faculty and peer interaction, separated from program resources, and barred from facilities vital to study,” the complaint reads. “Plaintiff and the Class Members did not bargain for such an experience.”  

Michael Schoenfeld, vice president for public affairs and government relations, declined to comment on pending litigation. 

“Duke continues to be focused on protecting the health and safety of our students and engaging students with important learning opportunities through the challenges of a global pandemic,” he wrote.

Citing statements from Duke’s admissions website, the lawsuit argues that in-person interaction with faculty and classmates makes up an essential element of the University’s promised educational experience. It alleges that the switch to online learning has degraded the quality of the student’s lecture classes; undermined his interaction with classmates and faculty; and rendered nonexistent his regular habit of using the University’s library, technology and gym facilities.

“Whereas Plaintiff could previously bounce ideas off professors who are world-renowned experts in their field, such opportunities no longer exist,” the lawsuit reads. “Instead such communications are now restricted to email, with an estimated ten-fold increase in response time.”  

The lawsuit acknowledges that the University has announced housing and dining refunds and credits for parking permit fees. But it faults Duke for “continuing to reap the financial benefit of millions of dollars from students” by still charging tuition and student fees.

The complaint requests a trial by jury and seeks damages equal to unrefunded tuition, fees and room and board, among others. 

Hagens Berman is the national law firm representing the plaintiff in the suit. A May 11 press release from the firm announced the suit.

“Students at Duke suffered an abrupt and unprecedented upheaval after their 2020 spring break, evicted from the dorms and switching entirely to remote learning,” said Steve Berman, managing partner of the law firm and the firm’s attorney in the case, in the release. “No more library access, hands-on lab experiences, gym access or in-person access to professors, all of which our client and many other Duke students paid for and expected to receive.”

According to the press release, Hagens Berman is “investigating the rights of those who are currently paying for room and board, and/or tuition at colleges and universities that have been forced to close due to the outbreak of COVID-19.” 

Hagens Berman is currently litigating similar lawsuits for students at Georgetown University, Rutgers University, Washington University in St. Louis, Emory University, the University of Southern California, Boston University, George Washington University, Brown University and Vanderbilt University.  

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