Student lawsuit alleges University profiting off pandemic by withholding refunds

Class action law firm Berger Montague filed the lawsuit on behalf of graduate student Latisha Watson. The complaint argues that students should receive refunds for tuition and programming fees since students began virtual instruction mid March. (Daily Trojan file photo)

A lawsuit alleging USC is profiting from the coronavirus pandemic by withholding tuition and fee refunds was filed against the University and Board of Trustees Tuesday. The filing follows Provost Charles Zukoski’s communitywide announcement April 28 that the University will not provide prorated tuition refunds for the spring semester conducted partially online.  

National class action law firm Berger Montague filed the lawsuit on behalf of plaintiff Latisha Watson, a graduate student studying social work. The complaint argued that in-person classes transitioned to remote instruction via Zoom are lower quality than USC’s online courses, and it asked that the University provide students with prorated refunds for tuition and programming fees since students began attending classes online March 11. 

“USC is thus profiting from COVID-19 while further burdening students and their families, many of whom have borne the brunt of the pandemic, themselves been laid off, or who are ill or suffering from financial setbacks,” the complaint read. “Both contract and equity demand that [the University] disgorge their ill-gotten funds.”

In the filing, Watson also contended that the online experience is not equivalent to the in-person campus experience, citing reduced interactions with mentors, guest lecturers, student programs and athletics. According to the complaint, Watson has spent more than $20,000 this semester in tuition, dining and student programming fees. 

“Plaintiff and Class members have been provided with a second rate online substitute which is cheaper for USC to provide by simply putting existing professors and classes on Zoom,” the complaint read. “USC’s post-COVID-19 online student offerings do not even come close to comparing with either USC’s in-person course experience or its online offerings … Instead, they are overpriced bubble-gum and duct-tape substitutes.” 

The complaint also argued that with $19.3 million in federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act funding, the University should be able to provide students with tuition and dining reimbursements. Students who vacated University housing have received prorated housing and dining refunds.

“We believe that USC’s refusal to refund students’ tuition and fees during this crisis is unconscionable,” shareholder and head of Berger Montague’s San Diego office Benjamin Galdston said in a press release. “USC is one of the nation’s most expensive private universities with a $6 billion endowment and flush with nearly $20 million in taxpayer-funded relief. Having failed to provide what it promised students, USC cannot keep their money.”

In a statement to the Daily Trojan, USC said it is aware of the lawsuit and bases its decisions about navigating the coronavirus crisis on guidance from public health officials and student well-being. The University also said it believes it has maintained academic standards during the transition to online learning required by California’s safer-at-home order. 

“Led by its committed and dedicated faculty, USC pivoted immediately to deliver quality instruction in an online format when the entire world was impacted by COVID-19,” the statement read. “Faculty and staff have worked tirelessly to connect with students to ensure that academic work continues on track and that progress toward the completion of a USC degree continues.” 

An online petition created by Bianca Sun, a graduate student studying law, has gained more than 7,000 signatures since early March requesting USC to provide partial tuition reimbursement for students to compensate for in-person classes transitioning online and other traditional campus resources. The lawsuit also looks to represent students who are facing a similar situation to the plaintiff. 

“Plaintiff and similarly situated USC students are entitled to have Defendants disgorge in full the portions of their payments for unused services and to refund their tuition for substandard classes,” the suit read. “Plaintiffs bring this class action for injunctive, declaratory, and equitable relief, and any other available remedies, resulting from Defendants’ illegal, inequitable, and unfair retention of the funds paid by Plaintiff and the other students in the proposed Class.”