A Kentucky judge has ruled that a lawsuit demanding the University of Kentucky refund students who were forced to leave campus amidst the coronavirus pandemic can proceed.
The Wednesday decision was enacted by Franklin County Circuit Court Judge Philip Shepherd. In his ruling, Shepherd said that claims for some $20 million in refunds may move forward.
However, The Associated Press notes that Shepherd dismissed an accompanying request that the University of Kentucky offer eligible students a partial tuition refund.
While the latter part of Shepherd’s ruling constitutes a defeat for students who feel they are overpaying for a virtual education, it is, nonetheless, something of a victory—the University of Kentucky had sought to dismiss the lawsuit outright, alleging exceptional circumstances and no breach of contract.
The university had also attempted to claim sovereign immunity, stating that, because it is as state institution, it cannot be sued without evidence of a statutory exception.
However, Judge Shepherd said that—even if the University of Kentucky can claim sovereign immunity—it can still be sued if the plaintiffs are able to argue that the school may have breached the contract it establishes with tuition-paying students.
Shepherd said that the University of Kentucky does not have to refund tuition on contractual grounds, since students “continued to receive instruction after UK switched from in-person to online classes, and each student who completed the required assignments for each course received course credit and a grade.”
The remaining claims center on fees the university charges for use of facilities.
Those fees, says The A.P., support the maintenance of on-campus facilities such as classroom laboratories and fitness centers. While financial and physical maintenance remains important even during campus closures, student plaintiffs say they are effectively being forced to pay for privileges they are no longer able to access or avail.
“Our position is the university has inappropriately retained close to $20 million dollars in fees—mandatory fees for services and facilities that the students did not have access to,” said attorney Andre Regard.
Jay Blanton, a spokesman for the university, said the university is currently reviewing the court’s latest order.
Blanton, adds The Associated Press, had earlier defended the school’s continued fees, saying they “support critical facilities and services that students have asked to support over the years and that remained available to them, such as mental health and wellness counseling.”
According to the plaintiffs’ breakdown of student fees from 2019-2020, any full-time student taking at least one on-campus course paid $160 for student health services, $131.25 for student services operations, and $80 for the use and maintenance of an on-campus gym.
A further $20 went to varied university-funded organizations, such as student government, a college radio station, and newspaper.
Regard told the Lexington Herald-Leader that, in lawsuits involving sovereign immunity, either the defendant organization or plaintiffs can request an immediate appeals review of a decision.
If neither the university nor the student plaintiffs request an appeal, the lawsuit may proceed to discovery.