Molloy University in Rockville Centre has agreed to partially reimburse about 5,000 students who paid full tuition before the COVID-19 pandemic forced classes online — a first-of-its-kind victory for Long Island students after courts had rejected at least four similar cases against local colleges.
The agreement settles a class-action lawsuit filed in December of 2020. The private Roman Catholic university agreed to create a $1.5 million settlement fund to pay students a share of the tuition and fees for the spring 2020 semester, according to court records.
Upon approval, an additional $3 million in noncash benefits would provide the plaintiffs with access to academic and career services on campus for one year, including interview preparation, help with resumes, and lists of available jobs and internships. In addition, a 30% reduction in graduate school tuition at Molloy would be available to plaintiffs during the next two years, settlement documents state.
Plaintiffs will receive notice of the settlement, which was reached last month with mediator and retired Appellate Justice Peter Skelos, by email in the coming weeks. The deal will be formally presented to court in October, said Michael Tompkins, the plaintiffs' lead attorney in the case. The cash component would be available 30 to 60 days later, he said.
WHAT TO KNOW
- Molloy University in Rockville Centre has reached an agreement to resolve a class-action lawsuit filed by students who were charged full tuition in the spring of 2020 as classes went remote because of the start of the pandemic.
- The agreement creates a $1.5 million settlement fund and provides an additional $3 million in noncash benefits.
- At least four other similar lawsuits, filed by students against Adelphi, Hofstra, Long Island University and New York Institute of Technology, have been rejected by courts in recent years.
"All these benefits together, we believe make a fair and reasonable resolution of the claims," said Tompkins, who is based in Carle Place.
With the combined benefits, Molloy students would receive an average reimbursement of about $900 per student, said Jeff Brown, the managing partner for the Leeds Brown Law Firm.
There are no records of lawsuits filed by students at Long Island's SUNY campuses. Shortly after the pandemic began, SUNY announced that students could receive a waiver on certain fees that were not being used while room and board payments would be refunded during remote learning.
In a statement, Molloy said that like "many other universities and colleges throughout the United States" the school is resolving a class-action lawsuit brought against it "regarding the move to online instruction during the 2020 Spring semester compelled by the COVID-19 lockdown."
Records show Maddison Booth of Fort Salonga, the lead plaintiff in the case, was an undergraduate student in the nursing program during the spring 2020 semester before graduating that May. During that semester, Booth paid $15,565 in tuition and another $1,000 in fees for services on campus, many of which she was unable to access during virtual learning.
"Plaintiff and the members of the class have paid tuition to receive a first-rate education and on-campus, in-person educational experiences," the lawsuit stated. "Plaintiff paid to receive the benefits offered by a first-rate college. Instead, the college provided a materially deficient and insufficient alternative, which constitutes a breach of the contract."
At least four other similar cases were filed by Long Island students against their respective schools — Adelphi, Hofstra, Long Island University and New York Institute of Technology.
Online learning options “are subpar in practically every aspect, including the lack of facilities, materials, and access to faculty,” according to the LIU lawsuit, filed by undergraduate student Nicolas Irizarry.
In each of the four Long Island cases, courts rejected the students' claims, often noting that the universities did not make specific promises in pamphlets and brochures to provide on-campus learning.
The judge in the Adelphi case did allow students to file a separate lawsuit focused exclusively on getting reimbursed for on-campus fees. The NYIT case, filed in federal court, was allowed to proceed in state court because the decision to shutter campuses involved an executive order by then-Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo.
Many cases outside New York have also been shot down. A federal judge this year dismissed a suit filed by students alleging breach of contract against Boston University. The judge said in court records that the university “didn’t make an open-ended promise to provide an ‘on campus experience’ in exchange for a semester cost."
Brown said momentum is with the students on tuition reimbursement cases. He cited a recent federal appellate court opinion in a NYU lawsuit that suggested lower courts should consider claims by students for breach of contract and unjust enrichment by colleges.
While the majority of these cases have failed, several schools, flush with federal COVID-19 relief aid, and facing a deadline to spend the money, have reached settlements with students. They include Harvard University for an undisclosed sum; Columbia University for a reported $12.5 million, and the University of Pennsylvania, which paid out $4.5 million, according to news reports.
At least one state has strengthened legal protection for colleges and universities faced with such actions. In 2021, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed legislation shielding schools from suits due to closures.
With Laura Mann