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Court: UNC students can seek COVID semester reimbursement

The Old Well on the UNC- Chapel Hill campus.
Brian Batista
The Old Well on the UNC-Chapel Hill campus.

Students at the University of North Carolina can continue their lawsuit seeking monetary damages for fees they paid before in-person fall 2020 classes were canceled due to COVID-19, a state appeals court ruled.

A three-judge panel of the Court of Appeals decided on Tuesday that a trial judge correctly last year refused to dismiss litigation filed by two students against the UNC Board of Governors. The students — Landry Kuehn at UNC-Chapel Hill and Joseph Lannan at North Carolina State University — also sued on behalf of other students at the two schools who paid similar fees.

The lawsuit alleged a breach of contract occurred when the students who registered for the fall 2020 semester paid health service, campus security and parking fees among others with an understanding that services and benefits would be provided, but they weren't. The students alleged they failed to receive proper refunds when campuses like N.C. State and UNC-Chapel Hill moved in-person classes online, "evicted all students from on-campus housing" and curtailed health services.

Lannan is due about $1,500 and Kuehn about $1,125, the lawsuit alleges, while other students at their schools at that time should be recompensed, too. The board’s lawyers have written previously that students had been informed that the instruction format during the semester could change and that fee refunds would not be forthcoming if that occurred.

The Board of Governors argued on the appeal in part that the lawsuit should be dismissed on grounds of sovereign immunity, which blocks such litigation against state government unless an agency consents.

Writing for the panel, Court of Appeals Chief Judge Chris Donna Stroud said the plaintiffs adequately alleged the existence of an implied contract, which can waive such immunity. Judges Chris Dillon and Darren Jackson joined in Stroud’s opinion. The UNC board could ask the state Supreme Court to take up the case, but the justices aren’t obligated to do so given that the opinion was unanimous.

North Carolina campuses similarly eliminated online classes and closed dormitories during the spring 2020 semester, but the General Assembly passed a law that year giving public and private colleges immunity from pandemic-related legal claims for tuition and fees. But it didn't apply to claims in future semesters.

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