Journal and Carrier
WEST LAFAYETTE – Zach Church, finishing his senior year from home in Michigan, some 325 miles from the West Lafayette campus, was leaving it to his attorneys last week to parse details of a class action lawsuit bearing his name, filed in the wake of the virtual shut down of Purdue University in the days of a coronavirus pandemic.
He is, Church says, busy with other pursuits – mainly “focused on finishing out my time in college and speaking with friends that I never got to say goodbye to” – as a legal team presses Purdue in federal court to refund tuition, fees and room and board for the half-semester he and classmates were asked to clear out.
“I have much less available free time now compared to before the pandemic,” Church said, “and I’d rather not spend that time talking about the case when I could spend that time with family or on a call with friends or members of any one of the clubs I am in.”
The class action complaint, filed April 9 in U.S. District Court in Northern Indiana, claims Purdue’s $750 credit for students who complied with a university request and moved off campus after spring break didn’t come close to matching what students paid to get for the second half of the spring semester.
Church’s lawsuit claims Purdue “unjustly enriched” itself during the coronavirus epidemic and owes him – and any other student in the same boat – money back for goods not delivered, not to mention a diminished online experience.
“Purdue’s decision to send students home and do classes online, this is not a criticism of that,” said Jennifer Czeisler, an attorney with Milberg Phillips Grossman, a New York firm representing Church.
“But there are a lot of schools that did it right. Nine times out of 10, they’re looking out for their students,” Czeisler said. “There are a handful of schools that left their students floundering. Purdue is one of them.”
The case against Purdue is just a piece of an effort for something called the Coronavirus Litigation Task Force, a wide net cast by Milberg Phillips Grossman and two other New York firms – Sanders Phillips Grossman and Aronova & Associates – to target “suspected wrongdoing related to the COVID-19 pandemic” and root out those “exploiting the crisis for financial gain.”
In the task force’s online callout for potential profiteering – and possible action – Purdue is included with price-gouging schemes to monopolize markets on face masks and medical supplies.
Czeisler and Tina Bullock, an attorney with Sanders Phillips Grossman, said other universities likely would get similar treatment. The task force also says it’s looking at other examples in industries ranging from nursing homes, false claims made about potential cures, securities fraud, predatory lending and foreclosures, negligence by cruise lines that continued to board passengers after cases came to light and more.
So, where would the university fall on that spectrum in comparison with, say, a guy who bought every case of hand sanitizer he could find and tried to resell it for $40 a bottle on eBay amid the early panic of coronavirus?
“Purdue is nowhere on that scale, because these are separate and distinct issues,” Czeisler said. “But – and there’s the big but – they are not entitled to profit at the expense of their students. That’s where the social injustice is found.”
As of Friday, Purdue had not formally responded in federal court to Church’s lawsuit. Tim Doty, a Purdue spokesman, said the university stands by its initial reaction when the suit was filed a week earlier.
At that time, Doty said: “It was sadly predictable that some plaintiff’s lawyer would attempt to profit from this unprecedented public health crisis that’s affected us all. The suit is baseless and has no chance of ultimate success. In the meantime, it will be one more minor difficulty among all those we’re currently wrestling with.”
Czeisler dismissed that as “nonsensical” and “the company line.” She said other Purdue students have reached out since Church’s case was filed. How many? She wouldn’t say.
“We’ll see where the class action takes us,” she said.
Kailey Potts, a sophomore nursing student at Purdue, said she had no interest in a class action lawsuit against the university.
But Potts started an online petition, gathering 2,247 signatures since March, calling on Purdue President Mitch Daniels to reimburse part of the spring semester’s tuition. The upshot of the petition: “Schooling is not cheap, and we have paid for the face-to-face instruction.”
Potts said she hasn’t heard directly from Daniels or the university administration, though she said she heard from other students, many of whom told her, “No matter how many signatures you get, it won’t change anything.”
“But I am hoping that Purdue looks into this and understands that we as students are paying large amounts to attend Purdue, and some of us even have to pay our own tuition,” Potts said. “Many of us are not even eligible for a stimulus check because we are dependents.”
Similar petitions surfaced on other U.S. campuses. University of Chicago students demanded a 50 percent tuition reduction for this semester. Students at University of Washington had similar demands.The Wall Street Journal reported that students filed lawsuits in early April against Drexel University and the University of Miami over spring semester tuition, room and board and fees. Students at the University of Arizona did the same, according to Inside High Ed.
A survey of schools in Indiana, done in late March by the Indianapolis Star, showed a range of refunds and credits offered for room and board for students who moved off campus. But none hinted that tuition refunds would follow, mainly given because classes continue, even if in a virtual setting.
Purdue offered $750 for those who left university housing. The university has not offered to refund tuition or supplemental fees, as classes continued in online settings and many campus buildings were locked.
At Purdue, Daniels has hinted that the university faces cost-cutting measures and likely limits in state funding as the economy slows. He already has frozen hiring, pulled back on promised merit-based raises, limited travel and more.
Daniels assigned a task force – 15 deans, faculty members, researchers and administrators – to recommend how Purdue should handle the fall 2020 semester so campus is as safe as it can be at a time of coronavirus. The initial report is expected by the end of this semester. David Hummels, Krannert School of Management dean and co-chair of that task force, told the J&C there’s no assumption that things will be back to what was considered normal at the start of the 2019-20 school year.
Daniels frequently reminds students that he misses seeing them on campus, while pitching an all-in-this-together, problem-solving mindset.
Potts said she stayed home in Northwest Indiana for the first few weeks after Purdue moved classes online on March 23, the day after spring break. She said she returned a few weeks later to her off-campus apartment in West Lafayette “just so that I could have a closer day to day atmosphere as I would during a typical semester on campus.” She said her professors at the School of Nursing “have done a great job.” But she says it’s not the same.
“I know I am missing out on crucial in-person academic interaction with my professors and peers,” Potts said. “It is sometimes difficult to make sure you aren’t missing anything because going to classes on campus sort of allowed you to stay on top of things and follow a schedule.”
Jo Boileau, Purdue’s student body president, said he and Assata Gilmore – the current vice president who won election as president for next year – have raised questions about tuition and housing reimbursements with the administration. But Boileau said Purdue Student Government concentrated more on ways it could help students.
PSG committed $12,500 to an emergency student assistance fund, with Purdue Graduate Student Government kicking in another $15,000. Another $10,000 went toward hot meals provided on a staggered basis through the rest of the semester. Another $2,500 went to the ACE Campus Food Pantry on campus for food, hygiene products and toiletries.
Boileau said PSG also pressed for a pass/no pass option for classes – “Initially an unpopular position with the administration,” he said – as students navigated remote classes.
As for reimbursements, Boileau said he didn’t expect PSG would have much of a say in that, though he said he’d continue to advocate for students.
“Let’s be clear: Students are acutely impacted by these circumstances, and many – as a result of tax filing status – did not qualify for the federal government’s aid-checks,” Boileau said. “A mere $750 reimbursement, in my mind, fails to meet the mark, though I find it to be just another in a string of casualties associated with stagnant tuition, exacerbated by this public-health crisis.”
SOURCE: (Lafayette) Journal and Courier