Students who were enrolled at Cornell during the Spring 2020 semester may be eligible to receive a sizable settlement from the University. On Sept. 21, the University reached a $3 million settlement in a class-action lawsuit that alleged Cornell breached its contract with students when the institution moved classes online due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The lawsuit was filed in April 2020 by Alec Faber ’20 and argued that students did not agree to pay equivalent tuition and fees for online learning. The lawsuit blamed the University for refusing to reimburse or not adequately returning money to students for tuition, fees and other costs they paid for when typical operations were disrupted by Cornell’s in-person shutdown. Faber declined to comment.
A short form notice was posted on Sept. 21 in the Cornell Chronicle that satisfies the requirement of publishing the settlement notice agreed to by both parties. In the notice, Cornell denied a breach of contract and other wrongdoing allegations. However, the notice stated that in the interest of a prompt resolution, the University and Plaintiffs agreed on the $3 million settlement.
“Cornell is pleased to have reached this settlement, which both sides believe is in the best interests of all parties,” said Joel M. Malina, vice president for University Relations, in a written statement to The Sun.
Calls for universities to reimburse tuition fees surged nationally in Spring 2020 after the switch to online learning. USA Today reported on Aug. 8 that there have been approximately 300 lawsuits relating to online classes at United States colleges.
Anastopoulo Law Firm, a firm based out of South Carolina, represented Faber and multiple other students suing universities such as the University of Miami and Drexel University over their switch to online learning during the pandemic.
Other lawsuits calling for tuition reimbursement and fees associated with the COVID-19 pandemic have generated mixed results. Judges dismissed a class-action lawsuit against Boston University in April because BU “did not make an open-ended promise to provide an ‘on-campus experience’ in exchange for a ‘semester cost,’” United States District Court Judge Richard G. Stearns wrote in his April 7 decision. Columbia University, however, settled a class-action lawsuit, paying $12.5 million in settlement.
At the time of publication, representatives from Poulin | Willey | Anastopoulo, LLC did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Settlement funds are offered in addition to the refunds the University offered students to rebate for on-campus housing and dining fees on March 10, 2020. A COVID-19 response announcement posted on March 13, 2020 explained the refunds would be offered to those students living on campus leaving Ithaca by March 29, 2020, while those requesting to stay on campus past that deadline were not eligible.
To become a beneficiary of the settlement, students must have been enrolled in a degree-bearing Cornell program for the Spring 2020 semester that — at the beginning of that semester — was not intended to be delivered as an online program.
Individuals who qualify for funds are included within the settlement class by default and will be issued a check to their last known mailing address on file with the University Registrar. Members will also receive a payment distribution email to their last known email address on file to choose alternative payment options including PayPal and Venmo or to donate their portion of the settlement Fund to Cornell’s Student Access Fund — a fund that provides low-income students with up to $500 of financial support.
The settlement administrators are in the process of reaching out to those who qualify through email.
Payments will be issued 60 days after the effective date — determined after the final approval hearing — and the redemption period will end 180 days after the effective date.
The proposed settlement is pending approval on a hearing scheduled for Dec. 13.