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Michigan appeals court: Universities don’t owe refunds for COVID remote classes

Michigan Hall of Justice Rotunda
Wikipedia Media Commons
Michigan Hall of Justice Rotunda

The appeals court ruled on lawsuits filed by students enrolled at Lake Superior State University, Eastern Michigan University, and Central Michigan University. The students were seeking refunds of tuition as well as room and board fees. The court consolidated all three cases to help bring the question to a speedy conclusion.

The appeals court panel split 2-to-one on most of the issues. The majority held the universities were allowed to change plans based on a public health crisis, but still delivered instruction and awarded class credits.

“In other words, these contracts expressly contemplated circumstances under which it is necessary to remove students from housing for reasons of health, safety, and welfare,” read the opinion signed by Judges Kirsten Frank Kelly and James Redford.

Also from the majority opinion:

"The University plaintiffs claim the University defendants breached their agreements by failing to provide live, in-person instruction. The University plaintiffs, however, have pointed to no contractual language in which the University defendants promised such method of instruction. The University plaintiffs have the burden to show that a contract exists in order for the contract to be enforced, because 'the court cannot make a contract for the parties when none exists.'”

In his dissent, Judge Brock Swartzle wrote the universities did not hold up their end of the bargain. He wrote the universities did not deliver what students and their families reasonably expected.

“I am not yet cynical enough to conclude that students go to university solely to gather credits for a diploma…” he wrote.

Also from Swartzle’s dissent:

"In the end, there is a growing body of evidence, including evidence in this record, that students of all ages suffered significant educational setbacks during the winter/spring 2020 semester, and possibly beyond. It adds insult to injury for a university student to have to pay full price for emergency remote teaching when that student allegedly bargained for much different educational services."

The appeals court decision upholds lower courts. The students could now take their case to the Michigan Supreme Court.

Majority opinion can be read here.

Dissent can be read here.

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Rick Pluta is the managing editor for the Michigan Public Radio Network.
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