The University of Missouri System broke its contract with students when it ended in-person instruction for the coronavirus pandemic and should repay tuition and face punitive damages, a new lawsuit charges.


The suit, filed in Boone County by an unnamed student on behalf of all university students, states that, while reasonable, the move to all online courses deprived students of the educational experience they paid for.


"It’s not fair to make students pay for services not provided," St. Louis attorney Richard Cornfeld said by phone. "All of us who attended a university know that things like interacting with professors one-on-one and going to the library are all part of the campus experience."


The UM System has refunded around $30 million in prorated housing costs and other fees, but not tuition. The lawsuit does not state which of the university’s four campuses enrolled the student.


"We vigorously deny the claims asserted in this lawsuit," university spokesman Christian Basi said in an emailed statement. "We are proud of the work our faculty and staff have done to serve our students during this time of global pandemic. Their work allowed the university to continue delivering education and supporting the needs of our students despite the challenges posed by the COVID-19 crisis."


Students aren’t able to enjoy the benefits of student organizations, extracurricular activities, athletics, networking opportunities and other benefits associated with on-campus life, the complaint reads.


The lawsuit is filed as a class action, which must be certified by the courts to move forward on behalf of all students.


The student isn’t named because of a fear of retaliation, the lawsuit reads.


Almost all colleges and universities in the United States stopped holding in-person classes in March as the COVID-19 pandemic took hold. As a result, more than 100 lawsuits have been filed seeking refunds and other damages.


The schools being sued include Harvard, Columbia, the University of Miami and Washington University in St. Louis.


The lawsuit alleges breach of contract, breach of good faith, unjust enrichment and violation of the Missouri Merchandising Practices Act.


Cornfeld said his law firm hasn’t filed any similar lawsuits and he isn’t aware of any filed by Los Angeles law firm Arias Sanguinetti Wang & Torros, also listed in the complaint. Another law firm is representing a student in a lawsuit against Washington University in St. Louis, he said.


The lawsuit doesn’t list any dollar amounts because the damage amount isn’t yet known, Cornfeld said.


At Tuesday’s UM System Board of Curators meeting, curator Greg Hoberock said families expect to pay full price for a complete college experience and that separate online and in-person tuition should be considered.


Hoberock spoke in the context of what the university should charge if it had to return to online-only instruction in the coming academic year.


"I cannot in good faith charge our parents and our students the full price of face-to-face learning if it is going to be done remotely or online," he said.


rmckinney@columbiatribune.com


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