UNC System asks top NC court to turn down students’ plea for 2020 refunds

Image from ncsu.edu

Listen to this story (6 minutes)

  • The University of North Carolina System is asking the state's highest court to reject a petition from students and parents seeking refunds related to COVID-19 shutdowns.
  • UNC's lawyers say plaintiffs filed their petition too late. The university also points to a state law granting them immunity from lawsuits linked to COVID-related campus shutdowns in spring 2020.
  • The state's highest court is scheduled to hear another case dealing with fees paid at UNC Chapel Hill and N.C. State in fall 2020.

Lawyers for the University of North Carolina System urge the N.C. Supreme Court to reject a petition from students seeking partial refunds for tuition and fees paid during the COVID-19 pandemic.

UNC filed paperwork Tuesday with the state’s highest court in the case Dieckhaus v. Board of Governors of UNC. The case deals with payments students made for the spring 2020 semester, when public university campuses across the state shut down because of COVID.

The state Supreme Court already plans to address a separate case that focuses on refunds of student fees at the university’s two flagship campuses in fall 2020. In that case, Lannan v. Board of Governors of UNC, the university challenges a lower court ruling that would allow the lawsuit to move forward.

The state Supreme Court issued an order in Lannan blocking the case from proceeding to trial.

In Dieckhaus, plaintiffs hope the state’s highest court will reverse the N.C. Court of Appeals’ unanimous ruling against them. Appellate judges handed down their decision on Jan. 17.

“Ninety days later, well outside the timeframe for filing a petition for discretionary review and with no mention of an explanation for the belated filing, Plaintiffs now ask this Court to review the panel’s decision,” wrote UNC lawyers in their latest legal brief.

The university’s objections extend beyond the timing of the Dieckhaus petition. “Their arguments about why the ruling by the Court of Appeals was wrong are legally incorrect and, in any event, insufficient to support a review,” UNC lawyers wrote.

North Carolina’s public universities moved from in-person to online classes on March 23, 2020, four days before Gov. Roy 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.

The 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. In June 2020, the General Assembly approved a law offering universities immunity from lawsuits linked to COVID-related closings during the spring 2020 semester.

“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,’” according to UNC’s brief. “Moreover, the Immunity Statute applies only where the university ‘offered remote learning options … that allowed students to complete the semester coursework.’”

UNC lawyers argued that the Dieckhaus plaintiffs failed to explain why the state Suprreme Court should take the case. “Had Plaintiffs filed a timely petition for discretionary review, discretionary review would have been granted only if: (1) the subject matter of the appeal had significant public interest; (2) the case involved legal principles of major significance to the jurisprudence of this State; or (3) the decision of the Court of Appeals appeared likely to conflict with decisions of this Court.”

“Plaintiffs do not explain why further review is justified in this case,” according to the university’s brief.

The Dieckhaus 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.

The suit challenges a state law, N.C. General Statute § 116-311, that legislators amended in 2020. “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.”

There is no deadline for the N.C. Supreme Court to respond to the Dieckhaus petition. The court has not yet scheduled the Lannan case for oral arguments.