At a Glance
- The Eleventh Circuit’s analysis affirms responsible actions during the pandemic and the potential value of handbooks or similar documents setting forth the rights and discretion of university officers.
- Dixon reflects the time-honored principles that courts give deference to university judgments regarding education of students and will enforce contractual language providing administrators with discretion, particularly amidst emergency conditions.
The Eleventh Circuit recently upheld summary judgment in favor of the University of Miami on claims related to the university’s transition to remote, online learning during the onslaught of the COVID-19 pandemic. See Dixon v. University of Miami, 75 F.4th 1204 (11th Cir. July 31, 2023). The Eleventh Circuit’s decision reaffirms the principle that “a court will not interfere with a private university’s enforcement of its regulations unless the university has acted arbitrarily or capriciously, in violation of a constitution or statute, or for fraudulent purposes.”
While courts have been busy addressing motions to dismiss brought by numerous universities in the spate of litigation over remote education during the pandemic the last several years, this is the first federal appellate decision concerning an order granting summary judgment in a COVID-19 tuition refund case. Multiple other similar cases are pending appeal in other circuits. See, e.g., Burt and Thomson v. The University of Rhode Island, Nos. 23-1188 and 23-1192 (1st Cir.); Dutra v. Trustees of Boston University, No. 23-1385 (1st Cir.); Bergeron v. Rochester Institute of Technology, No. 23-271 (2d Cir.); Beck v. Manhattan College, No. 23-1049 (2d Cir.); Michel v. Yale University, No. 23-222 (2d Cir.); and Pranger v. Oregon State University, No. 23-35393 (9th Cir.). The Eleventh Circuit’s analysis affirms responsible actions during the pandemic and the potential value of handbooks or similar documents setting forth the rights and discretion of university officers.
In Florida, a student’s relationship with their private university is contractual in nature, the terms of which may be derived from university publications such as the student handbook and catalog. The plaintiff alleged that she had a contract that required the university to provide an in-person education. Despite remaining enrolled during the Spring 2020 semester and earning the credits for which she paid, the plaintiff alleged that the university breached the contract when it transitioned to remote learning and argued that the university should refund a portion of her tuition and fee payments during that time.
The Eleventh Circuit disagreed, holding that even if a contract existed that included rights to an in-person education and access to on-campus facilities, Miami “retained the express right to alter or amend its procedures or policies and to close its classrooms and facilities.” The court relied on language in Miami’s Student Handbook that recognized that “[f]rom time to time it may be advisable for the University to alter or amend its procedures or policies. Reasonable notice may be furnished to the University community of any substantive changes, but is not required.” The handbook also provided that “The University of Miami reserves the right at any time to deny, revoke, or modify authorization to use any University facility or premises.” And it further specified that “[d]ecisions to deny, revoke, or modify the authorization to use University facilities, because of potential danger, are made by the President of the University upon recommendation by the Vice President and/or the appropriate administrator involved with use of such University facilities. . . . Decisions made in accordance with the policy are final and may not be appealed.”
The Eleventh Circuit held that these provisions standing together “unambiguously gave [the University] the authority to temporarily close its campuses in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.” Despite the breadth of this language, Miami still provided the plaintiff with instruction and class credit, assuaging any concerns about an illusory contract.
The Eleventh Circuit also held that it had no reason to second-guess Miami’s decision to close its facilities in response to “the spread of a deadly global pandemic that resulted in a state of emergency” and executive orders from Miami-Dade County and the Governor of Florida ordering the closure of campus.
Alternatively, the plaintiff argued that Miami was unjustly enriched by retaining her full tuition payment for the Spring 2020 semester. Again, the Eleventh Circuit disagreed, noting evidence that Miami spent $7.1 million and lost $50 million in its transition to remote, online learning — a transition that allowed the plaintiff to successfully complete her courses, receive credits towards graduation and obtain a university education from a considerably safer location. The Eleventh Circuit also observed that the plaintiff later voluntarily chose to take courses online in the Fall 2020 semester, which indicated that the cost of her tuition payments aligned with the value she placed on her remote education. The court specifically declined to address whether the “educational malpractice” doctrine would bar her claims.
Dixon reflects the time-honored principles that courts give deference to university judgments regarding education of students and will enforce contractual language providing administrators with discretion, particularly amidst emergency conditions.