A Liberty University student has filed a class action lawsuit over claims that the school unlawfully charged students for housing despite extensive COVID-19 closures and cancellations that took place on the Virginia campus.
The Liberty University housing cost class action lawsuit was brought forward anonymously, by a student who says that they paid tuition and fees to attend the private evangelical Christian university for the spring 2020 semester.
Allegedly, this student and many others were financially injured by the college’s choice to keep the school open, only as much as it allowed them to collect fees, without providing the in-person learning environment that drew students to the school.
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The student wishes to remain anonymous because they say that they fear retaliation from Liberty University and its president, Jerry Falwell Jr. The student says that they are afraid that this retaliation could include expulsion. Allegedly, the president has been known to ridicule and retaliate those who question his response to the coronavirus outbreak.
Liberty University’s response to COVID-19 has drawn media attention, says the student. Allegedly, The New York Times explained that the Liberty University president called the pandemic response an “overreaction.” The New York Times notes that the university president failed to take action during what the news source called “critical weeks in January and February.”
The plaintiff notes that students and other members of the university community expressed their worries that if the school were to remain open and students stayed on campus, they could be exposed to the coronavirus.
According to the student, the university ignored health warnings about the severity of the COVID-19 outbreak and reopened the campus after spring break.
Later, the school allegedly took steps to close the campus’s in-person classes and many services, but allowed the school to technically remain open.
On March 12, Virginia Governor Ralph Northam declared a state of emergency in response to COVID-19, and on March 30, issued a “stay at home order” for the state.
The Liberty University class action lawsuit states that only on or around March 23, 2020, did the university transition most in-person residential classes to online formats.
However, the school still remained technically open, despite these closures, states that student. To support this claim, the student points to a campus-wide email that stated: “While students are currently allowed to return to live in the residence halls, we are encourage you to consider staying home.”
This email was allegedly then followed by another email several days later, stating “the intent of encouraging students to consider remaining at home was to simply advise students to think carefully about their choice and discuss the matter with their parents. It was not an endorsement of any particular course of action.”
The plaintiff summarizes what they see as a conflict in these instructions, saying that even though Liberty University still invites students to stay on campus, the school is instructing that most students must move out and leave campus to make the campus safe.
According to the student, the school is only leaving the campus “technically” open as an excuse to collect the full cost of tuition and housing.
However, the Liberty University student says the collect of these fees is a violation of contract that the university has with its students, because most services are canceled. The student notes that these services include in-person classes, activities, dining services, and others.
The plaintiff goes on to say that the school merely pays lip service to the idea of compensating students who are forced to leave campus, noting that the school is offering a $1,000 credit for any student who chooses not to return to campus for the rest of the semester. However, Liberty University students who choose not to return the next semester are reportedly not eligible for this credit.
The student argues that this $1,000 credit is not sufficient in compensating students for the closures of the campus, or for the costs they may incur by moving out and foregoing their housing at Liberty University. The plaintiff notes that in the case of other campus fees that students must pay to attend the school, Liberty has offered no compensation.
The Liberty University class action asserts that these moves were an effort to garner profits for the school at the expense of the physical wellbeing and financial health of its students.
The Liberty University student states that the school even made these choices despite receiving financial aid from the federal government to cope with the effects of the coronavirus pandemic.
Student A is represented by E. Kyle McNew, J. Gregory Webb, and Lisa S. Brook of Michiehamlett; Adam J. Levitt, Amy E. Keller, and Laura E. Reasons of DiCello Levitt Gutzler LLC; and Matthew S. Miller of Matthew S. Miller LLC.
The Liberty University Housing Cost COVID-19 Closures Class Action Lawsuit is Student A v. Liberty University Inc., et al., Case No. 6:20-cv-00023-NKM, in the U.S. District Court of the Western District of Virginia.
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