SCOTX Rules Colleges Don’t Owe Refunds Over COVID Switch to Online Ed

Supreme Court of Texas
Supreme Court of Texas | Image by Supreme Court of Texas/LinkedIn

The Supreme Court of Texas has ruled that Texas universities are not liable for the educational experiences that students lost when campuses were shut down during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Luke Hogan attended Southern Methodist University when his final semester was moved online. Hogan paid about $25,000 in tuition and $3,180 in mandatory fees for his final semester in the spring of 2020.

Frustrated by the transition, Hogan sued SMU in state and federal court.

His lawsuit sought monetary relief, claiming that SMU’s move to online instruction constituted a “breach of the University’s promise of in-person education experiences, with all the appurtenant benefited offered by a first-rate university.”

He further cited the Student Rights and Responsibilities agreement, claiming a binding obligation to pay tuition in exchange for “educational services.” Hogan insisted that SMU failed to hold up its end of the bargain when it moved instruction online.

Initially, the district court ruled in favor of SMU, but Hogan appealed the decision to the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, per the Texan. The appeals court asked the Texas Supreme Court to weigh in on one question:

“Does the application of the Pandemic Liability Protection Act to Hogan’s breach-of-contract claim violate the retroactivity clause in Article I, section 16 of the Texas Constitution?”

The Texas Legislature passed the PLPA in May of 2021, which shields the State’s education institutions from monetary liability in responding to the pandemic.

On April 26, the Supreme Court of Texas answered no, citing that “the term ‘retroactive’ in the constitution has never been construed literally and is not subject to a bright-line test,” per the ruling.

Similarly, two students have filed a case against Baylor University, per KERA news. The plaintiffs in that case filed a “friend of the court” brief in support of Hogan.

“The Legislature made no finding that the PLPA was necessary to ensure that its citizens are educated, because it made no finding that lawsuits against educational institutions threatened their ability to continue to function,” they wrote in the brief. “And a statute forbidding lawsuits for monetary relief after the fact has at best a remote connection to the public’s health or safety.”

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