University of Michigan. Courtesy of iStock.

Fink Bressack claims the class-action lawsuit doesn’t infringe on U-M’s First Amendment rights. 

As more universities, including several Ivy League schools, announce plans for limited campuses in the fall in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, a local law firm is still fighting in-state schools for partial tuition reimbursements from the winter 2020 semester.  

Fink Bressack, a law firm with offices in Bloomfield Hills and Detroit, took a new step Monday in its class-action lawsuits against several higher-education institutions, including the University of Michigan. The suit alleges the schools owe students financial compensation for closing their campuses.  

On June 24, U-M had filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit filed against them April 20 by arguing that they do not owe students any refunds of tuition for switching to online classes during the coronavirus pandemic, citing their academic freedom. Fink Bressack responded July 6 by addressing the university’s claims as “red herrings, bald proclamations based on fundamental mischaracterizations.” 

The firm’s response challenges U-M’s invocation of their First Amendment rights and their responsibility of academic decision making. U-M had asked that the courts exercise judicial restraint and show “great respect for the faculty’s professional judgment” regarding academic decisions. 

Plaintiffs are not challenging academic decisions,” Fink Bressack’s response reads in part. Rather, Plaintiffs’ claims exclusively arise from Defendant’s decisions not to refund money for services not rendered.” 

The lawsuits seek refunds of partial tuition of the winter 2020 semester, prorated unused portions of room and board and unused fees that the students had paid for, such as a meal plan. Students who are involved with the lawsuits against their universities are asking for refunds because, according to David Fink, managing partner of Fink Bressack, they feel as though their instruction was lessened due to the shift to online learning. 

“The students are asking for appropriate refunds for the services or goods that they did not receive because of the COVID-19 pandemic,” Fink told the JN. “U-M is raising some unusual defenses to have the case dismissed.” 

U-M’s motion also argues that the courts have no say in how U-M spends their money, citing that Michigan’s state constitution grants the Board of Regents control over how their money is spent. 

“The Michigan constitution vests the Regents with exclusive power to control all expenditures and affairs of the University,” the motion read. “Thus courts may not interfere with the Regents’ control over University expenditures or management of University affairs except under very limited circumstances, none of which is present in this case.”  

Fink Bressack calls this argument “irrelevant” and continues, “The University, like any other division of Michigan government, can be sued in contract.” 

Other universities named in the lawsuit include Michigan State University, Central Michigan University, Wayne State University and Western Michigan University. Some out-of-state universities, the University of Toledo and Purdue University, are included as well. 

As for the other universities, they have responded to try and delay the lawsuits. CMU has also filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit. The next step is to wait to hear from the Michigan Court of Claims on their ruling on these motions. 

“The students are simply saying we should not have to pay for what we don’t receive. The students are not saying that they know better on how they should be taught,” Fink said. “What they are saying is that if they pay for in-person, classroom education with labs and the opportunity to meet with professors and other students, and instead they got the same kind of online education they could have received from an online university, they shouldn’t have to pay for what they did not get.” 

Rick Fitzgerald, spokesperson for U-M, told the JN in a statement that “Michigan law does not recognize a contractual relationship between the students and the university” and “the unforeseen event of a global pandemic is an event well beyond the control of the university. The university was not at fault in any way.”

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