Court overturns decision to dismiss lawsuit against Baylor by student seeking refunds for pandemic closures

WACO, TX (KWTX) – A federal appeals court has overturned a decision by U.S. District Judge Alan Albright of Waco to dismiss a lawsuit against Baylor University filed by a student seeking refunds and other compensation following shutdowns related to the pandemic by the university.

In a 42-page opinion released earlier this week, a three-judge panel of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed part of Albright’s March 2021 order, upheld part of it and returned the matter to Albright Court for further action as directed by the Court of Appeal.

Allison King, a Baylor student from McAllen, alleges breach of contract and unjust enrichment by Baylor. His lawsuit, similar to hundreds like the one filed across the country in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, sought reimbursement for tuition, parking, housing, food and other costs associated with the Private Baptist University attendance after its temporary conversion to online-only classes in the Spring 2020 semester.

The panel said Albright was wrong to conclude that Baylor’s financial accountability agreement with the students was “clear and unambiguous” and “extinguishes any implied promise of in-person instruction.” The matter should be considered further, the court ruled and sent the case back to Albright.

The judges agreed that Albright was correct in dismissing King’s claims for unjust enrichment.

Baylor officials released a statement on the appeals court decision.

“Baylor, like almost all other American universities, in moving classes online in the second half of the Spring 2020 semester, acted on the rapidly changing information available in order to continue providing educational services during a pandemic. globally and under public health orders in place so that students can complete their courses in a safe and healthy manner,” the statement read. “Baylor stands by this decision. We are pleased that the Fifth Circuit dismissed significant portions of Plaintiff’s case and acknowledged that Baylor has several potentially viable defenses that today’s decision did not address. We look forward to presenting these defenses in the District Court and are confident that the District Court will once again dismiss the claims in this lawsuit.

King’s attorney, Roy T. Willey IV, of Charleston, South Carolina, was unavailable Thursday. However, his office sent a statement on the 5th Circuit’s decision.

“We agree with the 5th Circuit’s decision and look forward to seeing justice for the students in District Court,” the statement said.

Willey’s firm has filed about 40 similar lawsuits against colleges and universities across the country.

Circuit Judge Edith H. Jones notes in her opinion that King alleges that she “lost approximately half of the classes, activities, and meals on campus in the spring 2020 semester.” She alleges that Baylor could have remedied those losses by reimbursing tuition and fees as well as meal plans and dining dollars.

Baylor spokesman Jason Cook said Baylor has refunded “millions of dollars” in housing, dining and parking sales to students for the spring 2020 semester. In online education, students still had interactions with their professors and received academic credit for their courses, Cook said.

“Baylor University stands by the decisions that were made during the spring semester during an unprecedented time for our country and all of higher education,” according to a statement from the Institute. school. “At a time when businesses and other organizations are closing their doors from coast to coast, Baylor has stepped in on behalf of our students in many unique, creative and sacrificial ways to fulfill our mission and provide educational services for a pandemic that has not been experienced for over 100 years.”

Baylor did not reimburse tuition, and Jones wrote that King complained that he “paid tuition for an on-campus experience with in-person instruction and access to on-campus facilities.” King said Baylor charges significantly less for online programs and alleges Baylor breached its implied contract with it by not refunding the difference between the amount it paid for in-person educational services and the amount it would have charged for half a semester of online instruction.

To illustrate this point, King says that a student seeking an MBA from Baylor through the traditional on-campus program would have been charged approximately $3,570 per term hour, while the same student seeking the same degree through the MBA program in Baylor’s line would have been charged $1,068. per four-monthly hour, i.e. 70% less.

King concedes, Jones wrote in his opinion, that there was no difference in “quality between in-person instruction on the Baylor campus and Baylor’s online-only instruction. Instead, King emphasizes “the simple premise that the in-person educational experience on campus costs more than the online-only educational experience.”

“In other words, King is upset with the price she paid, as opposed to the quality of Baylor’s online courses,” Jones wrote.

King also complains that Baylor chose not to reimburse money paid for certain fees, despite the fact that student overhead, course lab fees, and chapel fees specifically cover facilities and activities on the campus.

Circuit Judge Stuart Kyle Duncan, in a concurring opinion, says otherwise. He said King’s claims that Baylor “unilaterally changed its agreement with the school” may have merit.

“Maybe Baylor has ironclad defenses against these claims, but we’re not there yet,” Duncan wrote. “We are only at the motion to dismiss stage where King’s allegations are considered true. And as she alleges a simple breach of contract claim: I paid something, you changed the deal to give me something worth less, and I want the money back. Numerous courts across the country, faced with similar allegations, have refused to dismiss them.

“Yet the district court dismissed King’s claims. Why? He believed Baylor had never agreed to provide “in-person instruction” and “expressly” reserved the absolute right to change course offerings in response to disasters like a pandemic. Absurdity. Baylor could have written contracts with these escape hatches, but they did not. Duncan’s opinion states.

Duncan writes that Albright “misinterpreted” the FRA’s merger clause, which he says gives Baylor the right to meet “catastrophic demands” like flooding, tornadoes or widespread illness.

“It’s all wrong,” writes Duncan. “The merger clause does not breathe a word giving carte blanche to Baylor to change its price offer. It says nothing about floods, tornadoes, disease, or other disasters. It does not contain force majeure or “act of God” language. It is therefore not true that “the amalgamation clause expressly contemplates” Baylor’s absolute right to alter course delivery in an emergency.

King’s lawsuit said she paid $21,421 to cover spring semester tuition, plus $2,261 for student overhead, $50 for lab fees, $90 for chapel and $1,773 for a meal plan.

The lawsuit alleged that she was deprived of many aspects of college life after Baylor closed its campus on March 16, 2020, including Big 12 sporting events, access to the 156,000 square foot McLane Student Life Center and activities with sororities and fraternities, church groups, honor societies and more.

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