Student A v. Liberty Univ., Inc.

Decision Date05 May 2022
Docket NumberCase No.: 6:20-cv-00023
Parties STUDENT A, Student C, and Student D, individually and on behalf of others similarly situated, Plaintiffs, v. LIBERTY UNIVERSITY, INC., d/b/a, Liberty University, Defendant.
CourtU.S. District Court — Western District of Virginia

Adam J. Levitt, Pro Hac Vice, Amy Elisabeth Keller, Pro Hac Vice, Laura E. Reasons, Pro Hac Vice, DiCello Levitt Gutzler LLC, Chicago, IL, Matthew Scott Miller, Pro Hac Vice, Matthew S. Miller, LLC, Chicago, IL, Edward Kyle McNew, John Gregory Webb, MichieHamlett PLLC, Charlottesville, VA, Lisa Sarah Brook, Michie Hamlett PLLC, Charlottesville, VA, for Plaintiffs Student A, Student C, Student D.

Benjamin Gaillard Chew, Brown Rudnick LLC, Washington, DC, Harold Edward Johnson, Turner Anderson Broughton, Amanda Bird-Johnson, Williams Mullen, Richmond, VA, Jessica Nicole Meyers, Pro Hac Vice, Michael Winograd, Pro Hac Vice, Brown Rudnick, LLP, New York, NY, for Defendant.

MEMORANDUM OPINION

NORMAN K. MOON, SENIOR UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

This is a putative class action case brought by several students at Liberty University, seeking a refund for various fees and room and board they paid for the Spring 2020 semester. Plaintiffs argue that they and other class members did not receive the benefit of those on-campus activities and services that they paid for, when, they argue, Liberty effectively closed its campus that semester in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

As this case is before the Court on Liberty's motion to dismiss, the Court must accept the truth of factual allegations pleaded in the amended complaint. So doing, the Court concludes that Plaintiffs have stated valid, plausible claims for breach of contract and unjust enrichment against Liberty under Virginia law. However, Plaintiffs’ claims for conversion and that Liberty violated the Virginia Consumer Protection Act fail as a matter of law.

Background 1

Liberty University is an evangelical Christian, liberal arts institution in Lynchburg, Virginia. Am. Compl. ¶ 23, Dkt. 17. It began Spring semester classes on January 13, 2020, id. ¶ 28, shortly before the COVID-19 pandemic first impacted Virginia. On March 12, 2020, Virginia's then-Governor declared a state of emergency and on March 30, 2020, issued a "stay at home" order for all Virginians. Id. ¶¶ 42–43 & n. 9–10.

Plaintiffs allege that from January to March 2020, Liberty leadership had "dismissed the seriousness of the pandemic," including calling the response an "overreaction." Id. ¶ 38; id. ¶ 3. Nonetheless, in March 2020, Liberty announced that on account of the COVID-19 pandemic, it would "transition most residential classes to an online format starting ... March 23 [2020]." Id. ¶ 2.

The "students who lived in on-campus housing were not expressly forced to move out of their housing." Id. Indeed, Plaintiffs allege that Liberty "purport[ed] to remain open while classes ha[d] moved online." Id. But Liberty had "stopped providing the services and activities for which Plaintiffs and the other Class members paid fees." Id. ¶ 5. For instance, Plaintiffs allege that they and other class members had paid for the Spring 2020 semester "fees includ[ing] campus fees and the cost of room and board," which fees included $3,780 - $4,450 for "dining plans," $4,750 to $8,000 per year in "housing," $285 in an optional "auto registration fee," $340 for a "student health fee," $770 for the undergraduate "activity/student center fee" and $285 per semester for the graduate students, "course fees" that varied by program, and specific "activity fees" for the Divinity School, Law School, and College of Osteopathic Medicine (as well as other fees for the College). Id. ¶ 31. Some students had also paid for parking decals, which fees Liberty refused to refund. Id. ¶ 32. While Liberty had "agreed to provide the services or activities that each fee was intended to cover," id. ¶ 33, Liberty "stopped providing the services and activities for which the Plaintiffs and other Class members paid fees," id. ¶ 5. Liberty "converted all meals to take-out only," "closed all indoor recreation and fitness centers," "moved all Convocations and Campus Church online," "ended student organization activities," "suspended team sports," "closed campus to visitors," "encouraged work from home for staff," "postponed commencement," and "prohibited gatherings of ten or more people." Id. ¶ 6. On or about March 23, 2020, Liberty had moved most of its residential classes to an online format. Id. ¶ 43. Accordingly, faced with a campus that had "effectively been shut down," Plaintiffs allege that "most students chose to leave campus." Id. ¶ 8.

Plaintiffs allege that Liberty has "refused to refund to students and their families the unused portions of the fees that they each paid to cover the costs of certain on-campus services and activities, which [were] no longer available to students." Id. ¶ 10. Any refunds provided were "a mere fraction" of what Liberty owes for the unused fees. Id. Plaintiffs allege that Liberty opted instead to offer a $1,000 credit as a "customer service measure," to students who chose not to return to their campus residence halls for the remainder of the Spring 2020 semester, which would be applied to Fall 2020 charges. Id. ¶¶ 12, 48. The credit was unavailable to students who were not returning to Liberty in Fall 2020. Id. ¶ 48. Eligible students had to decide whether to take the credit by March 28, 2020. Id. Otherwise, "Liberty has refused to provide its students and their families with any refund of the miscellaneous campus fees they paid for the Spring 2020 semester that were unused or for which they had not received a benefit." Id. ¶ 50. Liberty has rejected students’ requests that Liberty return any campus fees. Id. ¶ 53.

Plaintiffs brought this putative class action against Liberty University seeking to recover the "costs of services and/or activities (including parking, room and board, campus fees, activity fees, and other fees) for the Spring 2020 academic semester." Id. ¶ 1. Plaintiffs allege that they lost the benefits of those services and activities on account of Liberty's response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Id.

This case is brought by three individual plaintiffs2 on behalf of the putative class, identified as Student A, Student C, and Student D.3 Student A is an out-of-state student, who "paid fees for the Spring 2020 semester," but will not receive benefits from those fees "because Liberty transitioned all of its classes online, shut down on-campus services and activities, and made it so that Student A ha[d] no reason to go to campus ...." Id. ¶ 18. Student C and Student D are also out-of-state students, who "paid fees and the cost of room and board for the Spring 2020 semester, the benefits of which [they] will no longer receive, because Liberty transitioned all of its classes online, shut down on-campus services and activities, encouraged or forced students to move out of their on-campus housing, and made it so that [they] ha[d] no reason to go to campus." Id. ¶¶ 20–21. Students C and D had not returned to Liberty's campus since before Spring break. Id.

Plaintiffs allege that Student A "has not been offered any refund of the fees paid for the Spring 2020 semester." Id. ¶ 18. Students C and D were "not offered a sufficient refund of the Spring 2020 semester room and board costs, or any refund of the fees paid for the Spring 2020 semester." Id. ¶¶ 20–21.

Plaintiffs brought this lawsuit against Liberty, filing the operative amended complaint. See Am. Compl. Therein, Plaintiffs have brought four causes of action against Liberty: breach of contract, unjust enrichment, conversion, and lastly violation of the Virginia Consumer Protection Act ("VCPA"), Va. Code § 59.1-196 et seq.

Liberty filed two motions in response. First, Liberty filed a Motion to Strike, or in the alternative, Motion for a More Definite Statement. Dkt. 19. Second, Liberty filed a Motion to Dismiss. Dkt. 23. The parties have briefed both motions, Dkts. 20, 22, 31, 32, 35, 36, as well as PlaintiffsMotion for Leave to File a Sur-reply, Dkts. 37, 38, and Liberty's Motion for Leave to file a Sur-reply, Dkts. 65, 66, 70, and the Court heard oral argument thereon. The parties have since filed numerous notices of supplemental authority, advising the Court of various courts around the Country that have ruled upon some similar claims against colleges and universities. The Court appreciates the capable briefing and argument of the parties, and these motions are ripe for resolution.4

Standard of Review

"A motion to dismiss pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6) tests the sufficiency of the claims pled in a complaint." ACA Fin. Guar. Corp. v. City of Buena Vista , 917 F.3d 206, 211 (4th Cir. 2019). It does not "resolve contests surrounding the facts, the merits of a claim, or the applicability of defenses." King v. Rubenstein , 825 F.3d 206, 214 (4th Cir. 2016).

A complaint must contain "a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief." Fed. R. Civ. P. 8(a). "This pleading standard does not require detailed factual allegations." ACA Fin. Guar. Corp. , 917 F.3d at 211 (citing Ashcroft v. Iqbal , 556 U.S. 662, 678, 129 S.Ct. 1937, 173 L.Ed.2d 868 (2009) ). Instead, "[t]o meet the Rule 8 standard and ‘survive a motion to dismiss, a complaint must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to "state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face." " Nadendla v. WakeMed , 24 F.4th 299, 305 (4th Cir. 2022) (quoting Iqbal , 556 U.S. at 678, 129 S.Ct. 1937 (quoting Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly , 550 U.S. 544, 570, 127 S.Ct. 1955, 167 L.Ed.2d 929 (2007) )). The complaint's "[f]actual allegations must be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level," Twombly , 550 U.S. at 555, 127 S.Ct. 1955, with all allegations in the complaint taken as true and all reasonable inferences drawn in the plaintiff's favor, King , 825 F.3d at 212. Howev...

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