Plaintiff requests class action, says MSU should refund more students for remote education

By: - August 26, 2023 9:55 am

First day of classes at Montana State University in Bozeman. (Provided by MSU for the Daily Montanan)

Anthony Cordero says he’s not the only one owed a refund from Montana State University for not providing an in-person education — other students who attended MSU when it switched to remote learning during the COVID-19 pandemic are also owed money.

In court documents, Cordero is asking a Lewis and Clark County District Court judge to certify his case against the flagship as a class-action lawsuit. Class certification would allow other students to join his legal fight to get some money back.

Some courts in the U.S. have already certified COVID-19 college tuition lawsuits as class-action cases, and in recently filed court documents, Cordero’s attorneys argue that his case is not meaningfully different.

Cordero, now an MSU graduate, argues in the lawsuit that he and other students paid tuition and fees for an education the university pledged to provide in-person — and then failed to deliver when it switched to remote learning in response to the pandemic.

In its own court documents, however, MSU said it exercised its authority to protect the health and safety of students during the emergency, and it doesn’t owe Cordero any money.

MSU also disagrees the court should group all students into one class — and it is asking the judge to toss the case and make sure it can’t be filed again.

Across the country, an estimated 300 lawsuits have been filed by students alleging colleges and universities owed them some of their tuition and fees because they were deprived of a promised in-person education, according to a recent story from Stateline News.

Courts have since awarded some students money as a result, Stateline News reported. For example, the story said the University of Delaware agreed in June to set up a $6.3 million fund to partially reimburse students.

In the Montana case, a court document Cordero filed last month notes the Bozeman university admits more than 15,000 students who paid tuition and fees for the 2020 semester. That semester, in-person education stopped because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Cordero has asked the court to decide the question he has — whether MSU breached its contract with him — is the same question those other students have, even if they’d be owed different dollar amounts.

In a list of expenses online, MSU said tuition and fees are $8,082 for the academic year for undergraduate residents, and $31,400 for undergraduate non-residents.

Contrary to MSU’s argument it doesn’t have a contract with Cordero, he said the Montana Supreme Court has found a contract doesn’t have to be just one single document; instead, it can be a set of materials with uniform language — such as a guide MSU sends prospective students, class registration information, and course catalog.

The lawsuit Cordero is bringing said a central question is common to all students: “Did MSU breach its contractual obligations to students when MSU retained the full amount of tuition and fees after closing its campus and moving all educational services to an online-only format in reaction to the COVID-19 pandemic?”

But MSU said all those students took a different mix of classes and didn’t have the same extracurricular activities either. Therefore, the university argued the court should reject the class certification request, as it said a court did in a case against New York University.

“The court concluded that ‘the putative class members in this case have little in common except that they were enrolled in the university in 2020 and paid some type of fee to some entity within NYU for some purpose,’” MSU said.

MSU said Cordero “inferred” the school should provide in-person education. As for fees, MSU said Codero didn’t take advantage of intramural activities anyway, wasn’t a member of student organizations, and can’t remember reading the student newspaper.

MSU said Cordero returned to California and took classes from there, received a computer engineering degree, and went to work for Boeing. Cordero wants his money, or property, back, but when he paid his tuition and fees, MSU said the money was no longer his.

“While money is property … once Cordero paid his tuition and fees for the Spring 2020 semester, those funds became public funds — they were no longer his property,” MSU said. “The exclusive and sole right to those funds belonged to the Board of Regents, not Cordero.”

In October 2021, Judge Michael McMahon said Cordero could proceed with his claim MSU breached its contract with him to provide an in-person education. MSU denies it made such a pledge and said Cordero jumped to conclusions from marketing materials.

The requests for summary judgment and class certification are pending before McMahon.

Cordero is represented by Sullivan Miller Law of Billings and Leeds Brown Law of New York. MSU is represented by Moore, Cockrell, Goicoechea & Johnson of Kalispell.

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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.