State’s top court takes up second case tied to UNC System COVID shutdowns

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  • The state Supreme Court has agreed to take up a case challenging a 2020 state law designed to shield the University of North Carolina from COVID-related lawsuits.
  • Lower courts have ruled against the student and parent plaintiffs in the case titled Dieckhaus v. Board of Governors of UNC.
  • The state's highest court could decide whether a law approved with near-unanimous support violates students' state and federal constitutional rights.

The North Carolina Supreme Court has agreed to take up a second case related to refunds requested from the University of North Carolina System for COVID-related shutdowns.

Justices could decide whether a 2020 state law designed to shield UNC from lawsuits linked to spring 2020 shutdowns violated students’ state and federal constitutional rights.

In the case Dieckhaus v. Board of Governors of UNC, student and parent plaintiffs from various UNC System schools seek partial refunds of tuition and fees paid in spring 2020. Every campus shut down in-person instruction during that semester, which coincided with the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In June 2020, the General Assembly approved Senate Bill 208 by votes of 118-1 in the state House and 49-0 in the Senate. Gov. Roy Cooper signed the bill into law on July 1, 2020.

Now known as NC Gen. Stat. § 116-311, the law says “an institution of higher education shall have immunity from claims” related to “tuition or fees paid to the institution of higher education for the spring academic semester of 2020,” if the “claim alleges losses or damages arising from an act or omission by the institution of higher education during or in response to COVID-19, the COVID-19 emergency declaration, or the COVID-19 essential business executive order.”

In an order posted online Friday afternoon, the state Supreme Court agreed to address “whether N.C.G.S. § 116-311 violates the Contracts Clause of the United States Constitution; (2) … whether N.C.G.S. § 116-311 violates the Takings Clause of the United States Constitution; (3) … whether the legislature’s enactment of N.C.G.S. § 116-311 violated the due process clauses of both the United States and North Carolina Constitutions;  [and] (4) … whether defendants’ breach was ‘reasonably related to protecting the public health, safety, and welfare.’”

Justice Tamara Barringer recused herself from considering the Dieckhaus case.

The state Court of Appeals ruled against the students and parents on Jan. 17.

North Carolina’s public universities moved from in-person to online classes on March 23, 2020, four days before Cooper issued a stay-at-home executive order tied to COVID-19. “Notably, while the universities transitioned to online instruction for the final weeks of the semester, students continued at all times to receive instruction, remain enrolled in school, and receive full course credit for the entire semester,” UNC lawyers wrote this spring when asking the state Supreme Court to reject the Dieckhaus csse.

Student and parent plaintiffs in Dieckhaus filed suit in May 2020 for partial refunds of tuition, fees, and other expenses linked to the weeks of exclusively online instruction. SB 208 followed the filing of the Dieckhaus suit.

“In enacting the statute, the General Assembly declared that: ‘[i]t is a matter of vital State
concern affecting the public health, safety, and welfare that institutions of higher education continue to be able to fulfill their educational missions during the COVID-19 pandemic without civil liability for any acts or omissions for which immunity is provided,’” UNC lawyers wrote. “Moreover, the Immunity Statute applies only where the university ‘offered remote learning options … that allowed students to complete the semester coursework.’”

Plaintiffs offered their argument to the state Supreme Court in April.

“Plaintiffs’ education was changed from in-person, hands-on learning to online instruction midway through the Spring 2020 semester,” wrote attorney Blake Abbott, who represents the student and parent plaintiffs. “When this happened, Plaintiffs were forced from campus and deprived of the benefit of the bargain for which they had paid, and in exchange for which Defendant had accepted, tuition as set forth more fully above.”

“In addition to tuition, Defendant charges certain mandatory student fees,” Abbott added. “Plaintiffs were required to and did pay the applicable fees at their respective constituent institutions for the Spring 2020 semester. However, as a result of being moved off campus, Plaintiffs and members of the Fees Class no longer have the benefit of the services for which these fees have been paid. For example, Plaintiffs were unable to participate in recreational and intramural programs; no longer had access to campus fitness centers or gymnasiums; no longer benefited from campus technology infrastructure or security measures; and no longer had the benefit of enjoying Spring intercollegiate competitions.”

“On top of the mandatory fees charged to all students, Defendant charges other access or program-based fees, such as fees for laboratory-based courses, parking permits, graduation fees for graduating seniors, etc.,” Abbott wrote. Three plaintiffs paid fees for on-campus housing and meal plans.

“N.C.G.S. § 116-311 seeks to protect Universities from all repercussions related to their Spring 2020 decisions to close campuses,” Abbott wrote.

“This Statute, as applied here is unconstitutional first because it violates the Contracts Clause,” the petition claimed. “Even if it is constitutional, a reading of the Statute demonstrates that Defendant has violated it by unreasonably withholding a refund. In whole, the Statute itself as applied, permits Plaintiffs to recover their funds from Defendant.”

In a separate case, Lannan v. Board of Governors of UNC, the state Supreme Court will decide whether students can proceed with a lawsuit seeking refunds related to shutdowns at UNC Chapel Hill and NC State University in fall 2020.

That case has no connection to the challenged law in the Dieckhaus dispute.

An October 2022 ruling from the state Court of Appeals would have allowed the Lannan lawsuit to move forward. The state Supreme Court issued an order weeks later blocking the Appeals Court’s decision. The high court agreed in March to take the case.

Briefing in the Lannan case ended this summer. The state Supreme Court has not scheduled the case for oral arguments.