MSU student Anthony Cordero has filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court of Butte alleging that MSU broke a contractual agreement with its tuition-paying students when classroom instruction was moved online last spring. Cordero, represented by Adrian A. Miller and Michelle M. Sullivan of Sullivan Miller Law PLLC, stands to represent all MSU students similarly situated —namely, those who paid full tuition for the Spring 2020 semester and whose classes were moved online amid the emerging COVID-19 pandemic.
According to the complaint, when students stopped receiving in-person instruction and on-campus events were cancelled, the university broke its contractual obligation to provide students with a “first-rate education and an on-campus, in-person educational experience, with all the apparent benefits offered by a first-rate university…” Furthermore, the complaint alleges that the online alternative to in-person learning was “materially deficient and insufficient.”
The lawsuit aims to win back prorated tuition and fees for the weeks when students were not receiving in-person instruction and were unable to use the facilities for which they paid, such as dining halls, the gym and labs. The complaint states that, “Plaintiffs and MSU entered into a contractual agreement where Plaintiffs would provide payment in the form of tuition and fees and MSU, in exchange, would provide in-person educational services, experiences, opportunities and other related services. The terms of the contractual agreement were set forth in publications from MSU, including MSU’s website and marketing materials, the application for admission submitted by Cordero and Class Members, and the acceptance letters received by Cordero and Class Members.”
The complaint also states that the cause for action in this lawsuit includes a breach of contract between MSU and tuition-paying students and a violation of the takings clause of the Fifth Amendment of the United States Constitution. This clause states, “nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.” The complaint also claims that MSU committed due process violations, unjust enrichment on the part of the university and inverse condemnation as outlined in Article II of the Montana State Constitution, which prohibits the government from taking private property —in this case, tuition and fees —without providing the compensation as required by the takings clause of the Fifth Amendment.
The university has yet to make a statement on the lawsuit and has told the press that they will not provide comment on matters pending litigation. However, attorney Dale Cockrell has agreed to represent the university in the suit and confirmed that he received the complaint and is reviewing it. A hearing has yet to be set.
Cordero’s representatives commented to the Bozeman Daily Chronicle, “The COVID-19 pandemic has created disruptions in all of our lives; that is not the fault of the students or MSU. Yet, MSU has unfairly shifted the pandemic’s financial burden to its students, who have paid for benefits that they did not receive.” This case joins the myriad of cases that have been filed across the U.S. alleging breach of contract and violation of the takings clause by institutions of higher learning after classes were moved online last spring.