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Mass. District Court Dismisses Lawsuit Demanding Harvard Refund Tuition For Pandemic Closure

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A federal judge on Monday dismissed a lawsuit brought by three Harvard graduate students in 2020 over the University’s refusal to partially refund tuition as classes moved online early in the Covid-19 pandemic.

The class action lawsuit alleged that Harvard acted unlawfully in shifting to virtual coursework without providing partial tuition and fee refunds for students’ lost on-campus experiences due to the Covid-19 crisis.

In Monday’s ruling, District Judge Indira Talwani ’82 granted the University’s motion to dismiss the suit, which argued that the plaintiffs failed to prove Harvard breached an express and implied contract with students.

Law School student Abraham Barkhordar and Sarah E. Zelasky — then a student at School of Public Health — initially filed separate complaints in the U.S. District Court of Massachusetts that were combined into one class action lawsuit last July.

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Later joined by a third plaintiff, then-Graduate School of Education student Ella M. Wechsler-Matthaei, the students filed a consolidated complaint in August on behalf of all students in Harvard’s 12 degree-granting schools.

Zelasky, previously anonymized as “Student A” in proceedings, wrote in her initial complaint in May 2020 that remote learning had been “subpar” and not worth the tuition students paid for spring 2020. She argued that the total damages on behalf of all students who paid tuition that semester would exceed $5 million.

Barkhordar’s separate complaint in June 2020 raised similar claims and sought refunded tuition for the spring 2020 term and future remote semesters. His suit also calculated damages surpassing $5 million.

In a memorandum filed in October, Harvard’s attorneys argued that the University “never made a promise, contractual or otherwise” to hold in-person instruction under all conditions.

Talwani wrote in Monday’s decision that the plaintiffs did not demonstrate Harvard students were contractually entitled to in-person instruction and on-campus access during “normal times,” and that even if they had, “Spring 2020 was not a normal time.”

“Harvard’s customary conduct in ordinary circumstances does not create an implied-in- fact contract requiring the same conduct during extraordinary circumstances,” Talwani wrote.

Attorneys for the plaintiffs did not respond to requests for comment. University spokesperson Jason A. Newton declined to comment on the dismissal and Law School spokesperson Jeff Neal did not respond to a request for comment.

Talwani noted Harvard also allowed students at the plaintiffs’ schools to decide between continuing classes remotely last spring or taking a leave of absence and receiving a partial tuition refund. Harvard additionally offered pro-rated refunds for room and board to students who had to vacate their campus housing.

Talwani also denied a partial reimbursement for Barkhordar’s fall 2020 semester tuition after he alleged the University gave him a “coercive choice” to either enroll online or take time off.

She concluded that in choosing to enroll last fall while aware instruction would be online, Barkhordar accepted the conditions of a virtual fall semester and could have “no reasonable expectation otherwise.”

—Staff writer Alex M. Koller can be reached at alex.koller@thecrimson.com. Follow him on Twitter @alexmkoller.

—Staff writer Simon J. Levien can be reached at simon.levien@thecrimson.com. Follow him on Twitter @simonjlevien.

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