New Law Immunizes Massachusetts Colleges, Universities from Spring 2020 Tuition Refund Claims
- Massachusetts Gov. Maura Healey recently signed the commonwealth's fiscal year 2024 budget, which includes a law that shields colleges and universities from civil liability for damages allegedly caused by decisions to halt in-person classes in response to the COVID-19 pandemic in the spring of 2020.
- Though it prevents civil liability going forward, the new law cannot be applied retroactively to schools that have already settled or resolved such claims.
- Massachusetts now is among several states that have enacted laws to limit liability against college and universities resulting from spring 2020 campus closures and remote learning decisions made in response to the pandemic.
Massachusetts colleges and universities received some good news recently as Gov. Maura Healey signed a bill that limits their liability for certain tuition and fee refund claims arising from the COVID-19 pandemic.
Healey on Aug. 9, 2023, signed the commonwealth's fiscal year 2024 budget, which includes a provision (Section 80) that immunizes colleges and universities from civil liability for damages allegedly caused by the transition from in-person classes to online learning during the COVID-19 outbreak in the spring of 2020.
Many colleges and universities in the commonwealth and around the country face class action lawsuits seeking tuition and fee refunds due to spring 2020 campus closures. The new Massachusetts law will be a boon for post-secondary schools currently facing these claims or the threat of such claims, but will be "too little, too late" for the schools that have already settled or otherwise resolved them.
The New Law
The new Massachusetts law – Higher Education COVID-19 Limited Liability – applies to both public and non-public "institutions of higher education," as well as to their owners, directors, trustees, officers, employees, contractors and agents. Specifically, the law provides immunity to claims against post-secondary schools that meet each of the following criteria:
1. The claim arose in connection to tuition or fees paid to schools for the spring academic term of 2020.
2. The claim alleges that harm was caused by the acts or omission of a school in response to the "COVID-19 emergency" (which is defined as the state of emergency declared by the governor that lasted from March 10, 2020, to June 15, 2021).
3. The alleged act or omission of the school was "reasonably related to protecting public health and safety interests in response to the COVID-19 emergency, in compliance with federal, state or local guidance, including, but not limited to":
a. transitions to online or remote learning
b. pauses or modifications to classes, student activities or services, or
c. closures or adjustments to the operation of on-campus facilities
4. The school offered online or remote learning "options that allowed students to complete the coursework in the spring academic term of 2020."
The law applies to any claims "commenced on or after March 10, 2020, for which a judgment has not become final before the effective date of this section and which were based on acts or omissions that occurred during the spring 2020 academic term." The law does not apply to claims that allege that the school's actions or omissions were malicious or in bad faith, nor does it apply to any claims for tuition refunds related to semesters other than the spring 2020 semester (i.e., the fall 2020 semester or thereafter).
Tuition Refund Cases Nationwide
Hundreds of higher education institutions across the country have faced litigation regarding the decisions they made in spring 2020 in response to COVID-19 and its unprecedented challenges. Many of these cases have been dismissed at an early stage in favor of the institutions; however, whether a case proceeds has varied greatly depending on the state law. In many states, including Massachusetts, these cases continue – until now. Massachusetts joins a growing number of states, including Florida and North Carolina, that have enacted laws to limit liability against college and universities resulting from campus closures and remote learning decisions made in spring 2020 in response to COVID-19.
Although there may be legal challenges to its enforcement as defendants move to dismiss pending claims, the new law, for now, comes as welcome relief to many Massachusetts colleges and universities facing potential liability for their good faith efforts to respond safely and responsibly to the pandemic.
If you have any questions about the new Massachusetts law or tuition refund claims generally, please contact the authors of this alert or another member of Holland & Knight's Education Team.
Information contained in this alert is for the general education and knowledge of our readers. It is not designed to be, and should not be used as, the sole source of information when analyzing and resolving a legal problem, and it should not be substituted for legal advice, which relies on a specific factual analysis. Moreover, the laws of each jurisdiction are different and are constantly changing. This information is not intended to create, and receipt of it does not constitute, an attorney-client relationship. If you have specific questions regarding a particular fact situation, we urge you to consult the authors of this publication, your Holland & Knight representative or other competent legal counsel.