Judge: Montana State University justified in shift to remote learning, doesn’t owe reimbursement

By: - August 27, 2023 9:21 pm

Montana State University in Bozeman. (Provided by MSU for the Daily Montanan)

Montana State University had the right to protect the health of students during the COVID-19 emergency by shifting to remote education — and it didn’t break a contract in doing so.

So said Lewis and Clark District Court Judge Michael McMahon in an order granting summary judgment to the Bozeman flagship against plaintiff Anthony Cordero, an MSU graduate.

“There is no material factual dispute whether MSU had the right to deliver online educational services. It certainly did under the circumstances,” McMahon wrote. “The Court absolutely agrees with MSU’s argument that its ‘transition to online instruction and social distancing measures was at most merely an infringement on Cordero’s enjoyment, which does not constitute a taking.’”

The judge also said the ruling in favor of MSU makes Cordero’s request for class certification — to give all students the chance to fight for reimbursement of  tuition and fees due to remote learning — moot.

The case mirrors others in the country. In some lawsuits, courts have granted students partial reimbursement from universities, but judges also have dismissed other claims, according to recent reporting by Stateline News.

In Montana, Cordero had argued MSU pledged to provide him and other students an in-person education, and when the flagship switched to remote learning, it broke its contract and owed students money; he argued keeping the money was a “taking” of property.

In the order, Judge McMahon agreed students and universities have a relationship that is contractual in nature, citing an earlier case. But he said in an “express contract,” the terms are explicitly stated, so Cordero’s claim that MSU breached such an agreement doesn’t hold up.

The judge said the various MSU catalogs and materials Cordero pointed to as evidence of a broken contract didn’t constitute an agreement that the university would provide — at all times — in-person instruction and open access to all its facilities and services.

“Cordero has failed to cite to any language from his self-serving and inferred patchwork of documents or any other MSU publication that limited MSU’s authority to make the absolutely necessary COVID related academic and campus transition adjustments during the Spring 2020 semester,” the judge wrote. “The same is true as to Cordero’s tuition and fee reimbursement claim.”

The judge pointed out MSU did refund some housing fees.

The court said it agreed with MSU’s argument that it acted to protect the health and safety of its students, and “no credible claim can be made that protection of public health … is not an important public policy.”

It pointed to an executive order from then-Gov. Steve Bullock directing everyone to stay at home as much as possible and all businesses except for essential ones to cease activities besides the most minimum. That order was followed by one from the Commissioner of Higher Education to campuses, and MSU transitioned to remote learning accordingly, the order said.

“After this transition, MSU kept its campus open and operational and continued to offer services to all students for the remainder of the Spring 2020 semester,” the court said.

Cordero paid $6,585.22 for his spring 2020 tuition, and additional dollars for fees, the judge said. He said MSU set a deadline for students to request their money back for a semester, and Cordero didn’t do so by that date, the 15th day of instruction.

After Feb. 3, the 15th day, the court order said that money became property of the Montana Board of Regents, as MSU had argued.

The judge also noted “it is undisputed” that Cordero’s and other students’ education “went on uninterrupted” so they could complete their coursework in a timely fashion. He said Cordero graduated at the end of the 2020 spring semester with a computer engineering degree.

In granting MSU summary judgment, the judge found a trial was unnecessary. He said no genuine issues of material fact exist, so MSU is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.

“It is universally recognized that ‘the purpose of summary judgment is to encourage judicial economy through the elimination of any unnecessary trial,’” the order said.

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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.