The parent of an OU student has filed a class action lawsuit against the Oklahoma State Regents for Higher Education for reimbursement of fees for university services suspended by COVID-19.
According to the petition for the case, Christopher Knox is suing the state regents for breach of contract and unjust enrichment. On May 22, Knox filed the lawsuit on behalf of everybody who paid fees for the spring 2020 semester at any of the 25 universities and colleges overseen by the Oklahoma State Regents and couldn’t use the services they were paying for due to COVID-19.
Knox paid $4,296.25 for mandatory and course-related fees and $2,885 for room and board on behalf of his son for OU’s spring semester, according to the petition.
According to the petition, Knox and other class members upheld their end of the contract by paying spring semester fees, but the state regents breached the contract by suspending the services the fees were paying for. In addition, the state regents were unjustly enriched by retaining the fees students paid.
“No matter the excuse, Oklahoma Regents’ actions are unlawful and unfair, and both law and equity demand disgorgement of the fees and monies paid,” the petition read.
Grant Thetford, one of the attorneys on the case, said his team isn’t requesting refunds for tuition because state universities and colleges have continued to deliver the education promised when students paid for their tuition. He said many students have lost summer internships or jobs that have helped them pay for college.
“In this time where the students are really suffering, and especially (because of) the fact (that many have) taken out student loans to pay for these fees, which are almost double what the tuition costs are at these universities, these students need to have this money back because it belongs to them,” Thetford said.
Thetford said his team decided to sue the Oklahoma State Regents instead of individual universities because the regents set the fees by statute and have the power to change them, so they should be ultimately responsible.
According to the petition, in March, the Oklahoma State Regents and state universities announced transitions to online formats, and students who lived on university campuses were either forced or encouraged to move out of their housing. The universities also halted most on-campus services that families involved in the lawsuit paid for.
“For all practical purposes, students had to leave campus, sacrificing the fees they paid to be on campus and for the services that come with being on campus,” the petition read. “Even for those students who had no choice but to remain on campus, campus services were essentially shut down and they could not receive the benefit for which their fees for the semester paid.”
According to the petition, the state regents have refused to refund students and families the unused portions of the fees they paid. The petition read that higher education institutions in other states have recognized the upheaval and financial harm that the transition to online classes has caused many families, and they have awarded appropriate refunds.
"These institutions recognize that because they are unable to provide the full slate of services for which the students paid, the institutions have no legal or ethical basis to retain the students’ money,” the petition read. “Oklahoma Regents, unfortunately, has refused to refund any fees other than room and board. The refunds have been inconsistent and incomplete.”
OU Director of Media Relations Kesha Keith said in a university statement that “it’s not the practice of the University to comment on pending litigation, particularly in cases … that do not list OU as a party. In general, throughout the emergence of the COVID-19 crisis, OU has prioritized the safety of its students and campus community, and has recognized the disruptive impact the virus has had on our students and their families. This is why OU acted quickly to issue refunds for housing, food and parking, and provided individualized financial assistance to students.”
OU administrators announced March 20 they’d be offering some housing and food refunds. Partial parking pass refunds for students were announced on March 24. University administration has also encouraged students to turn to programs like Sooners Helping Sooners for financial support.
Thetford said his team’s lawsuit has gotten a lot of attention from university students’ families.
“We’ve had dozens — if not hundreds — of families and individuals that are interested in this lawsuit … and believe that these fees need to be returned to the students because, at the end of the day, these fees were pre-paid for, and they’re supposed to receive something,” Thetford said.