The Budget Saves Brandeis: An Update on COVID-19 Tuition Litigation

In Part 2 of our series on our Massachusetts and Boston-based COVID-19 tuition refund class action suits, we reviewed the legal backdrop of this wave of class action litigation and explored some common pitfalls in education-based claims, noting that even where cases are able to proceed based on adequate framing of the claims and underlying facts, many lose their steam when a university successfully argues for denial of plaintiffs’ attempts to pursue their cases as class actions. One example of a Boston-area case in which class certification that we discussed was the May 2023 denial in Omori v. Brandeis University, which was dismissed earlier this month for an entirely different reason. We discuss that below, along with a similar ruling in Rodrigues v. Boston College issued just days prior.

Immunity for Tuition Claims in the 2024 Budget

Despite the defeat of its attempt to certify the proposed class (as well as the First Circuit’s denial of plaintiffs’ petition for an appeal of that denial), the case appeared to be moving forward until August 2023 when Massachusetts Governor Maura Healey signed into law the Commonwealth’s Fiscal Year 2024 Budget, which contains a provision granting institutions of higher learning retroactive immunity from claims for equitable or monetary relief that

arise [] out of or in connection with tuition or fees paid to the institution of higher education for the spring academic term of 2020 [so long as the institution] offered online and otherwise remote learning options that allowed students to complete the coursework …

Mass. St, c. 28 § 80(b) (“Section 80(b)”). However, institutions are not immune if “the damage alleged was caused by an act or omission . . . that was malicious or in bad faith.” Id. § 80(c) (“Section 80(c)”).

Brandeis’ Summary Judgment Motion Based on the 2024 Budget

Two months later, in October 2023, Brandeis moved for summary judgment arguing that the statute precludes the Plaintiffs’ remaining claims for tuition and fee refunds for tuition paid for the spring academic term of 2020 based on Section 80(b) immunity.

Plaintiffs argued that Section 80(b) was impermissibly retroactive and violated the Contracts Clause of the U.S. Constitution. In a decision dated January 11, 2024, the U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts in Boston disagreed with plaintiffs and granted the motion. Referencing its own analysis of a similar motion by Boston College decided just days earlier, the Court noted that “by limiting civil immunity to just the Spring 2020 semester and excluding harms that resulted from malice or bad faith, Section 80(b) is narrowly drawn and appropriately balances competing interests.” Further, although the plaintiff students had a viable breach of contract claim, the Court found that it was not enough to overcome the rational basis supporting Section 80(b) and its narrow tailoring.

In turn, the Court found there was “no need to undergo a separate analysis in response to plaintiffs’ Contracts Clause argument” because any purported impairment of plaintiffs’ contractual rights was reasonable given the “important and well-tailored government interests” of the legislation. The Court similarly held that the public policy rational for the statute precludes further consideration of whether Section 80(b) violates Article 10 of the Massachusetts Constitution concerning special legislation.

In accordance with the Court’s January 11, 2023 Memorandum and Order, Judgment was entered on behalf of Brandeis and the case was dismissed. The following day, the Plaintiffs provided notice of appeal to the First Circuit.

Boston College Also Wins on Immunity

Boston College had similarly argued for immunity resulting from the passage of the 2024 budget, which the court granted in a ruling also by Judge Nathaniel M. Gorton dated just three days before the Brandeis decision.  In the Boston College case, Plaintiffs sought relief related to multiple terms altered by the COVID-19 pandemic; in turn, BC’s motion for partial summary judgment addresses only the claims relative to the Spring, 2020 semester. The Plaintiffs acknowledged that the statute as written would immunize BC from liability arising from the Spring, 2020 semester and instead challenged the constitutionality of the statute, a similar tact followed by the plaintiffs in the Brandeis case. The BC opinion, issued just days prior to that in the Brandeis case, highlighted the Court’s satisfaction that “the Legislature reasonably promoted an important public interest in enacting Section 80(b),” explaining that “[t]he fact that the statute is designed to benefit the public at large rather than to avoid an educational obligation is further proof of its reasonableness.” The Court also noted the relative weakness in the Plaintiffs’ contractual claims due to the discretion reserved by the university (based on language in BC’s 2019-2020 catalogue), while making clear that even a stronger contractual case would likely not withstand challenge to the impairment of those rights resulting from passage of Section 80(b) based on its reasonableness in light of the important government interests, which in turn was exactly the result in the Brandeis case.

Unlike the Brandeis case, which ended in its entirety following the ruling on its immunity claims (pending appeal), the claims against Boston College as to other semesters will proceed.

Stay Tuned…

In the next installment of our COVID-19 tuition ligation series, we will review the BU and Suffolk cases in more detail, including the specific arguments made by the parties in their fee and tuition-based claims, and later, the current status and key takeaways from these and other local COVID-19 tuition refund class actions.

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