Earlier this month, Lindenwood University agreed to pay $1.65 million to settle claims that its online offerings during the pandemic were “substandard in virtually every aspect”.
It won’t mean a lot of money for affected students – the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reports that each student will receive approximately $185. But it’s still better than the results for University of Washington students. A similar lawsuit on online deals there was completely dismissed by a federal judge.
Both lawsuits related to allegations of breach of contract, unjust enrichment and coercion. Both involved the sudden shift to online classes at the start of the pandemic. So what was the difference?
Simple, said Nicole Gorovsky, an attorney at Gorovsky Law: “Lindenwood itself valued its online classes as less than in-person classes.”
Gorovsky continued, “If you wanted to be an online student at Lindenwood, you could opt for a lower tuition price than going in person. And so the court kind of hung its hat on that and said, “They appreciate that differently.”
Listen to the St. Louis on the Air Legal Roundtable
The University of Washington was also offering online classes before the pandemic. But unlike Lindenwood, where they were an option for undergraduates, the Wash U were part of the professional and continuing education program. As U.S. District Judge Sarah Pitlyk noted in her opinion, “Where [Wash U] offers one-to-one tuition both in-person and online, tuition is the same regardless of the teaching method.
Generally, Missouri law prohibits courts from “micromanaging” a university’s educational offerings, said Dave Roland, litigation director for the Missouri Freedom Center.
But in Lindenwood’s case, he added, “the court doesn’t have to make that assessment because the university itself has already made that assessment. And based on the university’s own assessment of tuition paid if you attend in person versus tuition paid if you attend online, we can conclude that the services provided were not equivalent.
Even so, Roland noted, Lindenwood’s settlement suggests the case was weak.
“I actually think there was a very reasonable chance that the school could have won if they had continued the fight,” he said. “It may have been just a financial decision or a goodwill decision to say, ‘Well, we’re just going to go ahead and make a deal at this point. “”
Eric Banks, a former councilman now at Banks Law, agreed. “It’s a very tiny colony.”
The lawyers discussed the case as part of Saint Louis liveLegal Roundtable. The panel also spoke about two very different cases involving former Missouri Governor Eric Greitens.
The Republican candidate for the US Senate is embroiled in litigation over staff use of an endangered text appwho lawyers say it has serious implications for Missouri’s open records law. He is also fighting a bitter custody case and wanted phone records in an effort to prove nothing less than Karl Rove was using litigation to derail his political future.
As the panel discussed it, Greitens dropped his request for Rove’s records long before a judge could rule – but continued to use the request, and his conspiracy theory around it, in political fundraising.
Panelists agreed that it would be impossible to build a defamation case on his claims, even if they were patently false. “It’s a problematic libel case,” Gorovsky acknowledged. “But it certainly testifies to its veracity.”
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