UNC, NCSU students urge N.C. Supreme Court to allow breach-of-contract suit to proceed

(CJ photo by Maya Reagan)

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  • Students from N.C. State University and UNC-Chapel Hill are asking the state Supreme Court to allow their breach-of-contract lawsuit to move forward.
  • Students Joseph Lannan and Landry Kuehn seek refunds of student fees paid for services their schools failed to provide during COVID-19 campus shutdowns.

Students from North Carolina’s flagship public universities are asking the state’s highest court to allow a lawsuit against their schools to move forward without delay. The students are seeking refunds of fees paid during COVID-19 campus shutdowns.

Students filed paperwork Thursday responding to an Oct. 19 request from the University of North Carolina’s Board of Governors. The BOG seeks a “writ of superseadas.” It would block a state Appeals Court ruling that the case could proceed.

The state Supreme Court granted the university a temporary stay on Oct. 21.

“In the fall semester of 2020, despite the pandemic, 14 of the 16 constituent universities continued campus life, keeping campus facilities open. However, two universities, North Carolina State University (NCSU) and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC-CH), shut down their campuses, evicted students (other than athletes) from campus, shuttered student unions and recreation facilities, canceled all arts performances, and banned access to sporting events,” wrote attorneys representing students Joseph Lannan and Landry Kuehn. “NCSU and UNC-CH charged student fees for many of the activities they shut down.”

“This was not, as Defendant Board of Governors of the University of North Carolina … seeks to euphemize it, a mere change in the mode of instruction: it was a total shutdown of campus, complete with evicting non-athletic students from campus housing,” according to the students’ brief.

“Flouting the constitutional mandate that the people have access to the University of North Carolina free of expense ‘as far as practicable,’ the Board refused to refund a penny of the millions of hard-earned dollars it collected in student fees even though it never provided the services for which those fees were paid,” the students argued.

Lannan is a grad student at N.C. State, while Kuehn is a UNC-CH undergrad.

“[T]he Students allege that, through specific communications and conduct related to the student fees, the Students and the Board formed implied-in-fact contracts under which the Students paid specifically designated student fees, and the Board agreed to provide specific services, benefits, and opportunities in exchange for those fees,” according to their brief. “The Board breached those implied-in-fact contracts when it shut down the UNC-CH and NCSU campuses and stopped providing the services for which it collected fees. The Students seek, for themselves and others similarly situated, a refund of the fees for which they received no services.”

Both a trial judge and a unanimous three-judge Appeals Court panel have ruled that Lannan and Kuehn could move forward with their case. Without the writ of superseadas, the suit would continue at the trial-court level as the state Supreme Court decides whether to take up the university’s appeal.

“Despite having failed to persuade any of the four judges who reviewed the Students’ Amended Complaint, that the Complaint is lacking, the Board now seeks to delay the proceedings further,” the students argued. The BOG “will suffer no significant harm by participating in discovery while its petition for discretionary review is pending. In contrast, if the case is stayed, tens of thousands of North Carolina students and families will have justice delayed on the
cusp of a global recession.”

The brief notes that Lannan’s N.C. State bill included fees of $1,846.85 for computer and science labs, student center and student union activities, recreational and intercollegiate sports, student health services, and campus buses. Kuehn’s fees at UNC-Chapel Hill included $1,687.92 for athletics, education technology, student health, student organizations, libraries, campus recreation, student union services, performing arts programs, campus buses, and night parking.

“The Board has argued for the dismissal of this action to four judges, one in the trial division and three in the appellate division. Currently, the ruling stands zero for four,” according to the students’ brief. “Yet the Board argues to this Court that it is likely to prevail on the
merits relying on arguments that the Court has rejected, at least implicitly, in other cases. The wheels of justice turn slowly enough without grinding them to a halt so that the Board can seek discretionary review, when statistically there is less than a 15% chance of success.”