MSU: Dismiss lawsuit asking for reimbursement of tuition, fees

Campus said student had no ‘contract’ in possible class action

By: - June 12, 2021 8:43 am

Montana State University is the flagship campus in Bozeman. (Photo provided by MSU.)

Montana State University has filed a motion to dismiss the possible class action lawsuit that asks the school to reimburse tuition and fees for students after it shut down in-person classes during the COVID-19 pandemic but continued to charge full fare.

In a brief filed last month, MSU argues plaintiff Anthony Cordero, a student at the time, can point to no contract the university breached, nor was his tuition “protected property” in Montana. 

“(Plaintiff’s claims) must allege MSU’s conduct was arbitrary or an abuse of discretion, otherwise they are barred by the educational malpractice doctrine,” said MSU’s brief in support of its motion to dismiss the case. “Plaintiff does not allege that MSU’s officials abused their discretion or acted arbitrarily.”

In March 2020 when coronavirus was detected in Montana, then-Gov. Steve Bullock issued an emergency declaration followed by a stay-at-home order. Campuses temporarily shut down in-person learning and took education online.

In the brief filed in Lewis and Clark County District Court, MSU said the plaintiff didn’t quibble with the way the school followed those mandates: “Plaintiff admits he does not challenge defendants’ compliance with the COVID-19 orders that were in place in the State of Montana.”

Filed earlier this year, the lawsuit names MSU and President Waded Cruzado as defendants. Cordero asks for reimbursement on behalf of himself and other students, should the case become a certified class action.

The lawsuit puts tuition and fees at the time at $3,685 for an average semester for a Montana undergraduate and $13,700 for an out-of-state undergraduate. The court record said MSU counted some 15,000 undergraduates in 2020.

In the case, Cordero doesn’t contest MSU’s desire to keep students safe during the pandemic, but he does argue the cost of providing an education online is lower than the cost of providing one in person.

“The online classes provided by MSU are objectively different from and less valuable than the on-campus classes for which the parties entered into an implied contract,” the lawsuit said.

In its brief, MSU said Cordero attached numerous documents that talked about the admission, enrollment and registration process at the flagship. However, MSU said the plaintiff couldn’t point to a contract.

“While plaintiff listed documents which purportedly formed the ‘contract,’ plaintiff failed to specify a single relied-upon contractual term, let alone a specific term or provision of the contract, which MSU allegedly breached,” the brief said.

Citing another court ruling, MSU also said the state recognizes school officials have leeway to make decisions for their institutions.

“Montana recognizes that it is for the persons in charge of schools ‘to say what is best for the successful management and conduct of the schools, and not for the courts,’” said the court document.

MSU also said Cruzado is immune from claims. The school argues that claims for damages can only be brought against people — people “in their individual, not official, capacities.

“MSU is not a person,” the motion said. “Cruzado is sued in her official capacity and is therefore treated as the State, which bars 1983 claims for damages against her.”

The claim is one of some 300 similar lawsuits against campuses and the way they handled teaching during the pandemic. Some courts have dismissed claims, but others have given them green lights to proceed to trial.

Adrian Miller, a lawyer with Sullivan Miller Law in Billings, earlier said interest is high in the case. Miller represents Cordero and said numerous people have reached out to her legal team about the lawsuit.

MSU brief on motion to dismiss

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Keila Szpaller
Keila Szpaller

Keila Szpaller is deputy editor of the Daily Montanan and covers education. Before joining States Newsroom Montana, she served as city editor of the Missoulian, the largest news outlet in western Montana.