Ashley He / Sun Staff Photographer

Students in the College of Art, Architecture and Planning sue Cornell as distanced learning, they argue, is not sufficient enough.

April 29, 2020

Students Sue Cornell for Breach of Contract, Demand Tuition Refund

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Update: Haynie dropped her lawsuit on Tuesday, she told The Sun.

Two students in the College of Architecture, Art and Planning are suing Cornell for a refund of tuition and fees after the University sent them home due to the COVID-19 pandemic, claiming that distance learning is not a suitable replacement for in-person instruction.

South Carolina-based Anastopoulo Law Firm is representing students seeking refunds from universities around the country, including Alec Faber ’20, who studies city and regional planning. Faber filed a class-action suit in the Northern District of New York on April 25.

Olivia Haynie ’20, an architecture student, filed a similar suit on April 23. The suit brought forward three counts: breach of contract, unjust enrichment and conversion.

As a result of the closure of campus, Cornell “has not delivered the educational services, facilities, access and/or opportunities that [Haynie] and the putative class contracted and paid for,” Haynie’s lawsuit read. Students “are therefore entitled to a refund of all tuition and fees for services, facilities, access and/or opportunities that [Cornell] has not provided.”

University spokesperson John Carberry declined to comment in a statement to The Sun, saying that Cornell cannot comment on active litigation. Reached by phone on Tuesday, Philip L. Fraietta, one of Haynie’s attorneys at Bursor & Fisher, P.A., said the firm does not comment on ongoing litigation. Haynie and Faber did not respond to emails seeking comment.

Several other universities are facing class-action lawsuits from students who want refunds for a semester that has shifted online, including Columbia and at least two other universities in New York State. As calls for tuition refunds grow louder, students have filed suit demanding coronavirus-related refunds in California, Arizona, Florida, Colorado and Virginia.

On March 13, Cornell promised rebates on housing and dining contracts, the same day that President Martha E. Pollack announced that classes would be suspended for two weeks, after which the semester would continue online. Since April 6, classes have taken place via Zoom, Canvas and other online platforms.

Haynie and Faber join other AAP students in describing the importance of in-person activities to their education. The lawsuits both emphasize that the students chose to attend Cornell because of its in-person nature. Both also argued that tuition covers face-to-face instruction, facilities, activities and more, not just classes.

“The Architecture program at Cornell relies extensively on in-person instruction, meaningful student presentations, peer feedback, and access to material fabrication facilities,” Haynie’s suit read. “None of these resources are available to Ms. Haynie while in-person classes are suspended.”

The lawsuits say online learning isn’t what students paid for.

“The online learning options being offered to Cornell students are subpar in practically every aspect, from the lack of facilities, materials, and access to faculty,” Haynie’s lawsuit said. “Students have been deprived of the opportunity for collaborative learning and in-person dialogue, feedback, and critique.”

The filing went on to say that “the remote education being provided is not even remotely worth the amount” students paid in tuition for the spring semester.

Sarah Skinner ’21 contributed reporting.