A state appeals court upheld the dismissal of three lawsuits filed by college students in New Jersey who believe they are entitled to a tuition refund after classes shifted online during spring 2020 due to the pandemic.
In a 23-page ruling issued Dec. 30, the three-judge panel found Kean University and Montclair State University (MSU) were immune from liability under the state’s Emergency Health Powers Act (EHPA) and that the decision to halt in-person learning for the semester was made in compliance with executive orders issued by Gov. Phil Murphy to curb the spread of COVID-19.
It also dismissed the putative class action suits filed in May 2020 by Kean undergraduate students Andrew Mueller and Athena Brock-Murray and MSU junior Colin Keyes with prejudice, meaning that the complaints cannot be reintroduced.
In their suits, the students contended the online options offered to Kean and Montclair registrants were subpar in practically every aspect – from the lack of facilities, materials and access to faculty – and claimed they “lost the benefit of the in-person education and services that they paid for, without having their tuition and fee refunded to them.”
In response, Kean and MSU filed motions to dismiss for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted. The motions were granted by trial courts, which found the EHPA immunized the schools from liability, prompting plaintiffs to appeal.
In last week’s opinion, Appellate Division Judge Richard Geiger wrote, “We conclude the immunity afforded by the EHPA does not conflict with the State or Federal Constitutions, as the statute is intended to promote the general health and welfare of New Jersey residents, employees, students, and visitors, thus giving it a ‘significant and legitimate public purpose.’”
“Immunizing public entities from liability related to their actions in a statewide public health emergency is a key part of the legislative scheme, as it allows these entities to act quickly, efficiently, and fully to prepare for and react to such circumstances without fear of litigation consequences,” he stated.
Geiger went on to note that the “plaintiffs do not contend the actions taken by Kean or Montclair in transitioning to total online instruction were unreasonable or unnecessary.”
“Because we hold that Kean and Montclair are immune from damages for transitioning to total online instruction rather than an in-person, on-campus education experience during the COVID-19 public health emergency, we do not reach the issue whether they breached their contracts with plaintiffs, were unjustly enriched, engaged in conversion, or benefitted from money had and received,” he concluded.
A MSU spokesperson declined to comment on the ruling.
A Kean University spokesperson told NJBIZ, “Kean University is pleased with the court’s decision. The University, like others across New Jersey, pivoted to remote instruction for the health and safety of our campus community and in accordance with state regulations. Kean continued to deliver a quality education during unprecedented circumstances.”