University faces spring 2020 tuition lawsuits

Lawsuits filed against the University have alleged that USF breached its contract with students during the spring 2020 semester by not partially refunding tuition. Graphics Center/Jo Chu

Ethan Tan

Staff Writer

Nearly one year after the decision was made to move instruction online last March, the University is being sued by USF students seeking partial tuition refunds for the spring 2020 semester. 

In San Francisco Superior Court, the University has been sued in two separate cases. In June 2020, juniors Samantha Berlanga and Jasmine Moore, along with Moore’s mother Amber Kaiser, filed a class-action lawsuit against the school on behalf of California residents.

In November, a similar lawsuit was filed by business management student Joseph Oliva. It is currently making its way through legal proceedings.

The University is not alone when it comes to facing lawsuits for its tuition decision. Across the country, dozens of universities and colleges have been sued by their own students for not partially refunding tuition, as students claim the quality of the education they are receiving has decreased and that they are not getting what they paid for. 

According to both federal and state court records, the University has been served three lawsuits related to their decision not to provide partial tuition refunds for the spring 2020 semester. The federal lawsuit filed in the Northern District of California was voluntarily dismissed in September 2020.

The two cases proceeding in superior court, which have not been dismissed, allege that a breach of contract occurred between students and the University as the students’ lawyers argue that their clients entered a contract with the University when registering and paying for classes. They believe the “contract” implies that in return for tuition payment, students will have access to an in-person education and in-person services. 

The two cases filed in superior court differ from each other, though. Berlanga and Moore’s lawsuit is a class-action suit that would only include California residents, whereas Oliva’s lawsuit includes all USF students as part of the class. In addition, Oliva’s lawsuit alleges the University unjustly enriched themselves by not issuing partial refunds. 

It is important to note that both lawsuits only seek partial tuition refunds for the spring 2020 semester and not the fall 2020 or current spring 2021 semesters.

In an interview with Dan Bolton, a lawyer representing Berlanga and Moore, he said, “We’re asking that USF refund at least a portion of the fees, given that they are not able to provide the services you expect from your academic experience.”

Bolton added that the court has affirmed that this is a proper breach of contract case and that the discovery phase of the trial has begun, as the University challenged the lawsuit procedurally. The trial date to determine whether the case will proceed to a jury trial has not yet been set, but Bolton expects the trial to take place sometime in 2022. The next hearing is in March.

Oliva’s case is still making its way through procedural phases.

Bolton did not make his clients, Berlanga and Moore, available for interview as the case is pending litigation, but he provided the Foghorn with this statement from Berlanga: “I, along with many other students, do not feel we have been receiving the level of education we should be for what we are paying for. While we understand how this was unexpected for the university, plans must be in place to secure the needs of students. After all, the Jesuit university prides itself on its communal values, but as students, we have felt left out of the conversation when it comes to rightly requested tuition refunds. I have not had access to nearly the same software, lab resources, or equipment my tuition so generously should cover during the last two semesters online.”

Both Berlanga and Moore created a petition in March 2020 calling for a 33% partial tuition refund, after administrators ignored their emails on the matter. As of the time of press, it has received just over 2,600 signatures.

In an interview with the Foghorn last March, Moore argued that the administration had been “dismissive” when responding to her emails about a tuition refund. “The coronavirus is not [the University’s] fault, but it is on [the University] to act accordingly. What they have been doing is not acting accordingly,” she said.

Berlanga, in the same interview last March, explained that she believed the quality of education she and others were receiving though Zoom was not on par with what she expected. “This semester, I was supposed to learn how to use a soundboard [in an audio production class]. I can’t take audio production again, but I’m expected to know how to use [a soundboard] for a job.”

Kellie Samson, media relations for the University, said in an email to the Foghorn, “USF announced on March 11, 2020 that because of the COVID-19 pandemic and related government orders, and in the interest of preserving the health and well-being of its students, faculty and staff, it would transition to online classes … USF has incurred considerable expense in providing an online learning environment and otherwise dealing with the impact of the pandemic, all while continuing to adhere to its mission to provide a high quality education in the Jesuit tradition.”

Bolton said, describing the upcoming procedural pretrial hearings for the lawsuit, “We do think we’ll be successful.”

Ethan Tan is a junior politics major and the Foghorn’s News Editor. He covers the University’s administration and campus labor unions. He can be reached at etan@sffoghorn.com or on Twitter @tanethans.

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