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Michigan Supreme Court hears arguments in COVID college reimbursement lawsuits

Michigan Hall of Justice (file photo)
Steve Carmody
Michigan Radio
Michigan Hall of Justice (file photo)

In the spring of 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic swept into Michigan.

In response to the pandemic, individuals and institutions scrambled to adapt.

In the case of higher education, colleges and universities hastily switched from in-person classes to online instruction, dormitories emptied and cafeterias scaled back.

The Michigan Supreme Court heard arguments Thursday involving lawsuits brought against three state universities by students wanting to be reimbursed for money they spent for a college education they feel they didn’t get in that spring semester.

The lawsuits before the state’s highest court are against Eastern Michigan, Lake Superior State and Central Michigan universities. There are other lawsuits making their way in the lower courts against six other state universities, including the University of Michigan, Michigan State University and Wayne State University.

“The issue is not what did the university do,” attorney David Fink, who represents the students filing suit, told the justices. “The issue is what value did the student get.”

But attorneys for EMU, CMU and LSSU stressed in their arguments that the universities did do what was in the contract that the students agreed to when they enrolled in classes for the Spring 2020 semester.

Attorney Paul Hudson represents Eastern Michigan University. In court, Hudson dismissed the plaintiff’s claim students did not receive the education they paid for.

“His claim is premised on a promise of in-person live instruction and a brick-and-mortar classroom,” Hudson said. “That promise as both of the lower courts concluded does not appear in the written contract.”

The justices appeared bemused by the broad discretion the universities’ attorneys claimed under the premise of “academic freedom” to determine the best way to deliver an educational experience to students, even under the disruptive nature of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Justice Brian Zahra compared the college students’ situation to an airline dealing with weather problems for a flight to California requiring rerouting passengers around the country.

“Isn’t that what's happening here? It’s not exactly what they thought they were going to get, but at the end of the day you delivered an education. Isn’t that the answer?” questioned Zahra.

If the Michigan Supreme Court allows the process to move forward, attorney David Fink concedes it will not be an easy task to assess what the students might be entitled to in compensation.

The case may affect more than 200,000 current and former Michigan college students.

Steve Carmody has been a reporter for Michigan Radio since 2005. Steve previously worked at public radio and television stations in Florida, Oklahoma and Kentucky, and also has extensive experience in commercial broadcasting.