(CN) — Students filed a class action against Liberty University demanding a refund of dorm and parking fees after the private Christian college made the controversial decision last month to bring students and faculty back to campus during the coronavirus pandemic.
The complaint filed Monday in Lynchburg, Virginia, federal court alleges the university has maintained the illusion of remaining open “to keep money that should be returned to students and their families.” The proposed class, led by anonymous plaintiff identified only as Student A, accuses the school of breach of contract, unjust enrichment and conversion.
While Liberty says students are allowed to return to complete online classes from their dorms, it has not refunded students’ charges for additional on-campus services.
Some of these services are essential to campus life, including more than $3,500 in dining hall plans and a $340 student health fee, which helps pay for school medical programs. Other fees listed in the complaint include parking decals and other auto-related charges, which remain unused in the face of a Virginia stay-at-home order in effect through June.
According to the complaint, the university only offered to compensate students in one way: a $1,000 credit towards dorm housing in the fall semester given only to students who did not return to campus for online courses during the pandemic. Many students did not apply before a March 28 deadline to receive this credit.
“Liberty University is, in a very real sense, profiting from the Covid-19 pandemic—keeping its campus and campus services ‘open’ as a pretext to retain plaintiff’s and other class members’ room, board and campus fees, despite no longer having to incur the full cost of providing those services, all the while putting students’ finances and health at risk,” the 22-page lawsuit states.
The university is also reportedly benefiting from a federal stimulus response to the Covid-19 crisis. Of $14 billion set aside for helping institutions of higher education, Liberty is set to receive more than $15 million, according to the lawsuit.
“The stimulus monies are designed to help students,” the complaint states. “It would be inequitable for Liberty to retain the value of these stimulus funds while, at the same time, ceasing to provide services to students and no returning the full, pro-rated amounts that students and their families paid for these services.”
The complaint defines the school’s response to the virus as “glacially slow,” saying Liberty ignored scientific analysis and “conventional wisdom” by allowing its students to return at the close of its spring break.
The Lynchburg-based college reopened its doors to students last month even though Virginia Governor Ralph Northam ordered schools to be closed for the rest of the academic year. It faced more criticism after a student then reportedly tested positive for the virus, which the school denied at the time.
Liberty University President Jerry Falwell, Jr. — an evangelical preacher and longtime supporter of President Donald Trump —has been accused of downplaying the threat of the virus.
“Further, on April 7, 2020, Falwell Jr. said that arrest warrants had been issued for journalists from The New York Times and ProPublica after each of those outlets published articles critical of his decision to partially reopen Liberty’s campus amid the coronavirus pandemic,” the complaint states.
MichieHamlett attorney Lisa Brook, who represents the students, said the central issue is the university’s unprepared response to bringing students back. Facilities were hardly set up to self-quarantine students potentially at risk for Covid-19 infection and the school’s refund offer wasn’t enough, she said.
“Giving back a $1,000 housing credit is not going to help a family going through financial hardship,” Brook said. She added that similar cases over schools refusing to refund student fees during the Covid-19 pandemic would be pursued in Illinois and Arizona.
In a statement Tuesday, Liberty University said the suit lacked legal merit and that the school has “tirelessly attempted to balance the needs of students, employees and the community.”
“Similar class-action suits are pending against other schools, and such claims will no doubt be made against other higher education institutions that changed how they operate and deliver services to students in the face of Covid-19,” the school said. “Each of Liberty’s changes in operations and modes of delivery has been required by government officials, a fact the complaint omits… That fact legally excuses Liberty’s adjustments and leaves the plaintiffs without a legal case.”
Covid-19 has killed more than 25,000 Americans as of Tuesday afternoon, according to a Johns Hopkins University tracker.