The divided three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit on Wednesday overturned a lower court’s decision shielding Tulane University from a lawsuit in which students sought a partial refund of tuition and fees when the university shifted to remote learning because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Like many of the federal courts that have ruled on the slew of lawsuits filed by families in the pandemic’s wake, the federal district court in Louisiana dismissed the students’ lawsuit against Tulane because it said the plaintiffs had accused the university of “educational malpractice” by providing a substandard education, a concept courts have uniformly rejected because it would put them in the precarious position of substituting their own assessment of educational quality for that of the institutions themselves.
But the majority of the Fifth Circuit panel ruled that student plaintiffs were not challenging the quality of the education Tulane provided but arguing instead that the university had broken a specific contractual promise to provide in-person instruction and on-campus facilities. That is a question a court should hear evidence on and ultimately decide, the appeals court ruled.
The third judge on the panel dissented, arguing that Tulane should potentially be held to account for the mandatory fees it collected from students but not the tuition dollars.