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Federal court dismisses R.I. students’ claims seeking tuition refunds from four universities

Students from Brown University, the University of Rhode Island, Johnson & Wales University, and Roger Williams University wanted a refund after the COVID-19 pandemic forced them to attend remotely.

Brown University in Providence.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

PROVIDENCE — A federal court has dismissed a series of claims from students from three different Rhode Island universities who had filed lawsuits alleging they were entitled to a tuition refund after the COVID-19 pandemic forced the universities to transition to remote learning in March 2020.

Judge John J. McConnell Jr. of the U.S. District Court in Rhode Island issued a court order on March 4 that dismissed breach of contract and tort claims at Brown University, the University of Rhode Island, Johnson & Wales University, and Roger Williams University.

In dismissing the students’ claims, McConnell noted that there was “no plausible reading” in student handbooks, policies, course catalogs, or any other materials that offered a contractual promise for in-person education. He said the universities had the right to alter the administration of its academic offerings.


McConnell also noted that the reality of the COVID-19 pandemic contrasted with the students’ claims that the universities “usual and customary practice of providing on-campus courses” would continue.

“While this Court’s central finding is that nothing in the complaint indicates a contractual obligation for Brown to hold in-person programs, the unique nature of this moment warrants emphasis,” McConnell wrote in his decision.

His decision of Brown’s case also dismissed similar claims against the three other universities as part of a consolidated offer.

“Brown, and other Defendants were responding to the remarkable circumstances of this pandemic — which has upended countless aspects of our society’s usual and customary practices,” wrote McConnell. “One can reasonably infer that the universities reserved their rights for situations just like what occurred in 2020 — unexpected events, in this case a global pandemic.”

Alexa Gagosz can be reached at alexa.gagosz@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @alexagagosz and on Instagram @AlexaGagosz.