For the second time this month, a federal appeals court reversed a lower court and held that a student can pursue his breach of contract lawsuit against a university in connection with its switch to online courses during the COVID-19 pandemic.
But the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans on Thursday also asked the Texas Supreme Court to decide whether a state law that would bar the lawsuit’s monetary relief claim is unconstitutionally retroactive under the state constitution, according to the decision in Luke Hogan v. Southern Methodist University.
Mr. Hogan filed a putative class action against Southern Methodist University in Dallas for refusing to refund tuition and fees after the university switched to remote instruction during the pandemic.
He had paid about $25,000 in tuition and $3,180 in mandatory fees to enroll in SJU and attend in-person classes for the spring 2020 semester, according to the ruling.
Although he successfully graduated at the end of that semester, he contends SMU breached its promise to provide all the benefits offered by a “first-rate university” when it switched to remote learning. He sued the university in U.S. District Court in Dallas on charges including breach of contract and unjust enrichment.
The district court dismissed Mr. Hogan’s charges, stating his breach of contract claim did not meet federal pleading standards and that his unjust enrichment claim failed under Texas law. Alternatively, it held that Texas Pandemic Liability Protection Act retroactively barred his claim.
A three-judge appeals court panel reversed the district court’s decision, citing two earlier rulings on the issue of pandemic-era remote classes.
It asked the state supreme court, however, to rule on whether the PLPA, which retroactively shields the state’s educational institutions, as well as entities in other fields, from monetary liability arising from their pandemic responses, was constitutional.
It said while Mr. Hogan argued the law is unconstitutional, the university, joined by the Texas attorney general as an amicus, argues it “serves a compelling public interest in safeguarding Texas’s strained educational system from a foreseeable onslaught of COVID suits.”
Attorneys in the case did not respond to requests for comment.
Last week, the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago reversed a lower court and held in Kelsey Delisle and Kaitlin Pennington v. McKendree University that students could pursue breach of contract litigation against a university that switched to online courses during the pandemic.