USC and Board of Trustees named in second class-action lawsuit

USC and the Board of Trustees are being sued in a second class-action case for declining to provide partial tuition refunds after courses moved online in early March due to the coronavirus pandemic.

“USC, like many universities, has a choice. They can choose to do the right thing and reimburse students and parents. Unfortunately, USC has chosen otherwise, and we believe that choice violates the law,” said Steve Berman, an attorney for students in the class action, in a press release. 

The lawsuit was filed under the pseudonym Jane Doe, a California resident who was enrolled as a full-time student in Spring 2020, on behalf of all students who paid tuition and fees for the spring semester, according to the complaint. It follows an announcement from Provost Charles Zukoski last week that the University will not be refunding tuition and fees, although prorated housing and meal plan refunds have been issued to students who vacated their campus residences.

“Whether our instructors present their classes in person or online, they bring the same expertise, depth of knowledge, and commitment to their teaching, and students continue to earn credits toward a USC degree,” the email read.

In response to the lawsuits, the University reiterated that its faculty continue to conduct rigorous, high-quality classes, albeit in a different format. 

“We are disappointed by the lawsuit, but believe the evidence will show that USC took extraordinary steps to ensure continuity of the educational experience for its students,” the University and Board of Trustees said in a statement. “That information will become clear when we defend the university against the lawsuit.”

According to the complaint, Doe argued that the University continued to “reap the financial benefit of millions from students” for resources and an academic experience students have since been deprived of with the transition to remote learning. 

“So while students enrolled and paid Defendants for a comprehensive academic experience, Defendants instead offer Plaintiff and the Class Members something far less: a limited online experience presented by Google or Zoom, void of face-to-face faculty and peer interaction, separated from program resources, and barred from facilities vital to study,” the complaint read. 

The complaint alleged Doe’s professors consistently provided her with conflicting class information, emailing incorrect class times and assignments. The lawsuit also stated her professors were unable to adapt their teaching approach based on student needs, as the online class format complicated such adaptation.

“Instead, professors present sterilized lectures and/or PowerPoint presentations, cutting classes short instead of using the full time that the professors previously used,” the complaint read.

The complaint indicated that Doe’s education has also been affected by her professor’s inability to successfully transition to online classes through the cancellation of important assignments. Without these assignments, Doe argued that she was deprived of important opportunities to learn and take advantage of physical resources in campus libraries. 

“Though the reasons for such closures are justified, the fact remains that such closures and cancellations present significant loss to Plaintiff and the Class Members,” the complaint read.

The complaint cited the University’s residential college experience, more than 1,000 recognized student organizations and more than 20 libraries and numerous other facilities, which all benefit from tuition costs and fees, as evidence that USC focuses its environment on students’ campus presence. The lawsuit argued that the campus closure warranted partial refunds since tuition goes toward covering such facilities’ costs.

The lawsuit also based its reasoning on a USC student-led petition in early March calling for prorated tuition refunds, which has now been signed by more than 7,300 people at the time of publication. 

“While we recognize and sympathize with the difficult position that the Coronavirus has put University of Southern California in, this transition to online classes represents a notable reduction in educational and instructional quality, which we fear will negatively affect our educational and professional outcomes moving forward,” the petition read.

The lawsuit also cited an April 15 opinion article from the Daily Trojan that argued the negative impacts of the pandemic on USC students’ studies and social experiences justified a partial tuition refund.

The class action seeks compensation for breach of contract, unjust enrichment, conversion — unlawful use or possession of one’s property — and unlawful or fraudulent business practices as prohibited under California’s Unfair Competition Law.

“Defendants’ practices are immoral, unethical, oppressive, unscrupulous or substantially injurious because it deprives Plaintiff and Class members of their bargained for educational experience, opportunities, and access to facilities, and forces students and families bear the burden of USC’s COVID-19 related shutdown,” the complaint read.