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Emory student sues university for refund over COVID-19 coursework

The Emory University sign is shown along North Decatur Road at the main entrance to Druid Hills campus. AJC FILE PHOTO.
The Emory University sign is shown along North Decatur Road at the main entrance to Druid Hills campus. AJC FILE PHOTO.

An Emory University student has filed a class action lawsuit against the school, saying the virtual learning it has provided since the coronavirus pandemic has been an inadequate substitute for the tens of thousands of dollars students paid in tuition this semester.

The lawsuit, filed Friday in federal court in Atlanta, is calling for the university to refund students an estimated $5 million and pay additional legal fees. The plaintiff is Willa DeMasi, a Massachusetts native who just completed her first year at Emory.

Emory, Georgia’s largest private university, is the latest school in recent weeks to be sued on such grounds. Hagens Berman Sobol Shapiro LLP, the law firm representing DeMasi, has filed many of the lawsuits, including those against the University of Southern California, along with Boston, Brown, Duke, George Washington and Vanderbilt universities.

“Despite sending students home and closing its campuses, Defendant (Emory) continues to charge for tuition, fees, and/or room and board as if nothing has changed, continuing to reap the financial benefit of millions of dollars from students,” the complaint says. “(Emory)does so despite students’ complete inability to continue school as normal, occupy campus buildings and dormitories, or avail themselves of school programs and events.”

Emory said in a statement Monday it would “vigorously defend” the litigation.

“When the spring semester was disrupted by COVID-19, Emory University continued to provide our students with an excellent education as they make academic progress toward earning a degree,” the statement said, noting the university established a $5 million fund to support undergraduate, graduate and professional students facing financial hardships resulting from COVID-19.

Emory University, with more than 15,000 students, said in mid-March it would refund student accounts with a calculated amount of unused housing, dining, athletic fees, activity fees, parking fees, and other fees. Emory’s refund did not include tuition, which was about $26,500 for the spring semester.

The law firm said while the reason for virtual education was justified, the cost for such learning greatly exceeded how much money students at other colleges and universities paid and cited complaints about the online instruction in Emory’s student newspaper.

Peter McDonough, the former general counsel for Princeton University, said Monday that the lawsuits raise the question of the value of the education against the student’s expectations. He compared it to a lawsuit filed more than a decade ago by a law school student who paid tuition at Loyola University New Orleans but couldn’t take courses there after Hurricane Katrina. The student, though, was allowed to take free classes at Southern Methodist University law school in Dallas, Texas. A New Orleans federal court judge dismissed the case.

“The question that seems to be asked is what’s the value of the remainder of the semester and how we thought it would align with what we thought it would be like,” said McDonough, vice president and general counsel of the American Council of Education, a policy group that represents more than 1,700 colleges and universities and related associations.