Student files class action lawsuit against Kent State to recoup tuition and fees

Paige Bennett News Lab

A Kent State student has filed a class action lawsuit against the university for not fully refunding tuition and fees after in-person classes were canceled in spring due to the coronavirus pandemic. 

The complaint, filed June 17 by junior finance major Caitlyn Waitt in the Ohio Court of Claims, states the university violated its contract with students by not reimbursing them for tuition and mandatory fees despite canceling face-to-face classes. 

“In short, plaintiff and the members of the class have paid tuition for a first-rate education and an on-campus, in-person educational experience, with all the appurtenant benefits offered by a first-rate university, and were provided a materially deficient and insufficient alternative,” the complaint states.

The mandatory fees include the general fee and enrollment fee. The general fee typically covers costs such as recreation services, health center services, student organizations and intercollegiate athletics, according to the university website

“Because of the university’s response to the coronavirus disease 2019 pandemic, on or about March 16, 2020, the university also stopped providing any of the services or facilities the mandatory fee was intended to cover,” the complaint states. 

In an email, Eric Mansfield, executive director of university media relations, said the university received the complaint and does not comment on pending litigation. 

The complaint was filed on behalf of all students who paid to take in-person classes at Kent State during the spring semester, summer semester and any future semesters where classes move to online learning. 

Kent State “failed to provide the quality of education and services and facilities for which tuition and the mandatory fees were paid, including those for an in-person and on-campus live education and access to the university’s services and facilities,” according to the complaint.

It also states the university should:

  • Reimburse students for mandatory fees and a prorated portion of tuition for the time after in-person classes were canceled during the spring and summer semesters.

  • Provide prorated refunds for unused housing and meal plans to students who lived on campus, but did not vacate their housing before March 30, the deadline Kent State set for students to move out and receive a prorated refund.

Kent State filed a motion to dismiss the complaint July 20. The motion states Waitt’s breach of contract complaint is actually a claim of educational malpractice, which Ohio courts do not recognize. 

In addition, it states the complaint does not contain enough evidence to support the claim that the university’s online courses were inadequate compared to its in-person courses. Kent State “provided its students with educational services through the end of the semester so they could complete their credit hours and continue to matriculate with their degree programs toward graduation without delay.”  

The motion states that amid the COVID-19 outbreak, the university “made the lawful academic decision to continue with remote learning rather than putting its students and faculty at risk or canceling the semester halfway through.” The university followed executive orders from the office of Ohio Governor Mike DeWine, according to the motion, along with public health directives when it switched to remote learning on March 12.

Kent State should not be obligated to refund tuition for the summer semester, according to the motion, because students were aware the classes would be remote before they enrolled in them. 

“Under this theory of damages, the plaintiff essentially demands that students who willingly and knowingly enroll in remote courses for summer 2020 or later terms not have to pay tuition but instead be allowed to enroll in college classes for free,” the motion states.  

It states the university should not have to provide prorated refunds for housing and meal plans to students who did not vacate their dorms before March 30 because it continued to offer them these services. 

The university also stated in its motion that Waitt cannot represent that part of the class in the complaint because she did not live on campus or pay housing and dining fees for the spring 2020 semester.

Waitt did not respond to requests for comment. James Simon and Clifford Bendau, two of Waitt’s attorneys who submitted the complaint, said they had no comment on the case. Attorney Carlson Lynch, who is also listed on the complaint, did not respond to a request for comment. 

Simon, Bendau and Lynch also filed a class action complaint June 12 against Ohio University on behalf of 2020 alumna Lily Zahn that asks fora partial refund of tuition and fees following the university’s shift of academic instruction online. 

Another class action complaint was filed against Ohio State University and the Ohio Department of Higher Education on behalf of Morgan McDermott and all students enrolled in a graduate or undergraduate program on the main Columbus campus during the spring 2020 semester. The complaint includes a “subclass of all students enrolled in the Ohio State College of Dentistry’s DDS program” during the spring and summer 2020 semesters. 

The complaint states Ohio State failed to “offer any refund of any portion of the Student Union Facility Fee it charges all students attending classes at its Columbus campus or any portion of the Clinical Support Fee it charges all DDS candidates, despite OSU’s closing of the Ohio Union and of the DDS clinics on March 16, 2020” due to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The complaint asks that Ohio State return a prorated portion of the Student Union Facility Fee, as well as a prorated portion of the Clinical Support Fee. 

The University of Toledo also faces a complaint filed by Trevor Cross on behalf of “himself and all others similarly situated.” The complaint seeks refunds of the amounts students paid for tuition, room and board, fees and other applicable costs on a prorated basis, or an “equivalent reduction in amounts owing as well as other damages to be elaborated on herein.”

Waitt requested a 10-day extension until August 13 to respond to Kent State’s motion to dismiss, in part to decide whether to respond to the motion, amend the complaint or consolidate it with the cases against the University of Toledo and Ohio University. 

Editor’s note: A previous version of this story did not include Kent State’s motion to dismiss Waitt’s complaint. It was also updated to include Waitt’s request for an extension.

This article was produced through a reporting partnership with the Collaborative News Lab @ Kent State University.