Former student sues college over ‘insufficient’ learning experience last spring

Ansin+Building+of+Emerson+College

Photo: Hongyu Liu

Ansin Building of Emerson College

By Chris Van Buskirk, Contributing Reporter

A former student is seeking a tuition and fee refund in response to Emerson College’s decision to move classes online last spring as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a lawsuit pending in Massachusetts federal court. 

The lawsuit, filed last fall by former visual and media arts student Ryan Porter, argues that the colleged failed to provide a sufficient alternative to in-person learning after classes moved online in Spring 2020. While the court has not set a trial date for the case, lawyers for the college have requested oral arguments before Judge Rya Zobel, court documents say.

Porter’s suit follows a national trend in which students are seeking legal actions against higher education institutions for the decision to transition classes online and send students home at the onset of the pandemic in March of last year. The lawsuit against Emerson notes that tuition for one semester typically costs just under $24,000, a service fee runs $436, and room and board comes out to just over $9,000.

The text of the lawsuit and related documents are available to the public and were obtained by The Beacon through PACER, a service that provides access to federal court records.

“In short, Plaintiff and the members of the Class have all paid for tuition for a first rate education and on-campus, in person educational experiences, with all the appurtenant benefits offered by a first-rate college,” the lawsuit reads. “Instead, students like Plaintiff were provided a materially deficient and insufficient alternative, which constitutes a breach of the contracts entered into by Plaintiff with the College.”

Get This Week's News

All the big stories delivered to your inbox every Thursday morning 

Three lawyers from the Boston-based firm Shapiro Haber, & Urmy, LLP are representing Porter, along with a lawyer from the New York firm Leeds Brown Law, P.C. The college enlisted Boston’s Holland & Knight, LLP to represent them according to court documents. 

“Emerson has been served with a complaint in this case and has filed a motion to dismiss,” Emerson College spokesperson Sofiya Cabalquinto said. “More than 300 cases of this type have been filed by class action lawyers against institutions throughout the country in the past year. The college has no other comment on the matter.”

Lawyers from Shapiro Haber & Urmy did not respond to The Beacon’s request for comment via email and phone calls. Porter could not be reached for comment over the phone.

The lawsuit seeks to establish a “class,” which would include students who paid tuitions and fees to attend the college for in-person “educational services and experiences” for the spring 2020 semester, according to court documents. The court would need to certify the scope of the “class” for other students to have the opportunity to receive money from a ruling in favor of Porter. 

A federal judge ruled in December that Northeastern University would have to face parts of a class action suit filed by students seeking tuition refunds for similar reasons as both the Emerson and Boston University cases, Law360 reported. 

The lawsuit said lawyers for Porter may notify students at the college of legal action through court-approved notification methods like U.S. mail, email, internet postings, or published notices to join the suit. The lawsuit also says it is impracticable to bring the individual claims of every student at the college before the court, but notes that Porter is “a more than adequate class representative.” 

The lawsuit does not list whether other students have joined the class-action, and it is unclear at this time whether additional students have joined.

Porter consulted the course catalog before the Spring 2020 semester and enrolled in classes, according to the lawsuit. He “understood and believed” that every course would be taught in-person at the college’s Boston campus, the lawsuit said. 

The college transitioned classes online on March 10, 2020, and then three days later, asked students to leave dorms as cases of COVID-19 first began to rapidly surge in Boston.

Porter argues in the lawsuit that his payment to the college was contingent on the “understanding and belief” that learning would be in-person and on campus—as the course catalog indicated—rather than in “hybrid” or “online” formats. 

“Thus, the in-person nature of the course was part of the benefit of the bargain, and Plaintiff would not have paid as much, if any, tuition and fees for the Spring 2020 semester at Emerson College had he known that the course would not, in fact, be taught in-person,” the lawsuit read. 

In Porter’s case, the college made several attempts over the past few months to dismiss the  case, according to court dockets. The latest attempt came on Feb. 10 and Porter’s lawyers requested additional time—until March 19—to respond to the motion. 

The college argued in their motion to dismiss the case that Porter’s legal arguments are “impermissible challenges” to the quality and value of the education he received.

“Plaintiff’s claims for damages based on the quality and value of his education are not actionable and are barred as a matter of law,” the motion read. “Plaintiff’s claims also challenge how Emerson’s curriculum should be taught, and therefore constitute unlawful interference with the college’s constitutionally protected freedom to make its own judgments about how best to perform its educational mission.”

Students have taken similar legal actions at other colleges across the country and in Massachusetts, including one from a group of Boston University students. In that suit, filed in the state’s federal court system, students are seeking room, board, and fee reimbursement following the closure of the institution’s campus due to the pandemic. 

A Rhode Island federal court dismissed several claims from students at three separate universities in the state who also sought tuition refunds after classes transitioned to remote learning. The presiding judge said “no plausible reading” of student course catalogs or policies offered a contractual agreement for in-person education, according to The Boston Globe. 

Like the Rhode Island cases, Porter argues that the college’s failure to provide services for which tuition and fees were intended to cover constitute a breach of contract, the lawsuit said. Lawyers for the college say Porter has not alleged a specific contractual promise that Emerson allegedly breached, court documents read. 

As a result of the pandemic, the lawsuit said online-only learning options offered to students were “different in practically every aspect as compared to what the educational experience afforded plaintiff and the members of the class once was.” The lawsuit alleges a lack of classroom interaction among teachers and students that typically occurs during in-person instruction. 

The lawsuit alleges online formats are not as rigorous as regular classroom instruction as they do not require “development of strong study skills.”  

Porter also takes issue with the decision to allow students to choose a pass/fail option instead of receiving a letter grade. College officials previously said the pass/fail option allowed students more flexibility as they coped with fear and anxiety as a result of the pandemic.

That decision, the lawsuit said, allowed for “educational leniency.”

“The ability to receive a pass-fail grade rather than a letter grade provides educational leniency that the students would not otherwise have with the in-person letter grading education that was paid for and expected,” the lawsuit said. ‘Students, like Plaintiff, have been deprived of the opportunity for collaborative learning and in-person dialogue, feedback, and critique.”