DOVER, Del. -- A lawsuit against the University of Delaware over its campus shutdown and halting of in-person classes because of coronavirus can proceed as a class action on behalf of thousands of students who were enrolled and paid tuition in spring 2020, a federal judge has ruled.
Friday's decision came just days before a scheduled hearing this week on the university's request for the judge to rule in its favor without a trial. That hearing has been postponed indefinitely.
In his ruling, Judge Stephanos Bibas rejected the University of Delaware's argument that the plaintiffs, who accuse the school of breach of contract and unjust enrichment, lacked standing to sue. The university also argued unsuccessfully that it is impossible to know who actually paid tuition because some students may have used outside sources like scholarships.
“Those students, no less than students who paid out of their own pockets, were parties to a contract that U. Delaware allegedly breached,” wrote the judge, who noted that the only students excluded from the class would be those who received full rides.
According to the ruling, more than 17,000 undergraduates were enrolled at the University of Delaware in spring 2020, and the university collected more than $160 million in tuition.
The plaintiffs have argued that, before the pandemic, the school treated in-person and online classes as separate offerings and charged more for some in-person programs than they did for similar online classes. They also noted that the university charged them fees for the gym, student centers, and the health center, sometimes at higher rates than those paid by online students, and that the school kept those fees while denying them the services.
The plaintiffs are seeking partial refunds of their spring 2020 tuition, having earlier agreed to dismiss their claims arising from student fees.
The university claimed that none of the named plaintiffs who brought the lawsuit paid tuition.
“That is false,” Bibas wrote. “The named plaintiffs paid tuition, through either loans or cash from their parents.”
Whether students were part-time or full-time might affect the damages to which they are entitled but does not affect the school's liability, the judge added.
Bibas previously ruled that the plaintiffs had plausibly alleged that the school implicitly promised them in-person classes, activities and services. “I anticipate looking at evidence of how U. Delaware advertised itself and whether students were attending classes in person before the pandemic," he said.
The judge previously rejected the university’s argument that it expressly reserved the right to go online, but he noted Friday that the plaintiffs' right to restitution depends on the school's “net enrichment.”
“If U. Delaware got a greater benefit than the students, then it was probably unjust for the school to keep the students’ money, as that enrichment has no basis in a valid agreement,” Bibas wrote. “But if an online education in spring 2020 was worth full tuition, then there was no net enrichment."
The judge said net enrichment will be measured by taking the amount the university received from each student and subtracting the “fair market value” of the services it provided to each — a calculation he acknowledged will be difficult. The fact that some students may have had better grades in spring 2020 than in previous semesters, or that some joined more clubs or took more advantage of student services than others did, is not relevant in that calculation, he said.
“These services are available to all students for the same fixed price. And though students may make more or less (or better or worse) use of them, that does not change their fair market value,” the judge wrote.