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Maryland universities must pay $1.6M in tuition dispute

Judge issues order in long-running litigation

One hundred twenty-five Maryland university alumni unlawfully denied in-state tuition rates will share in a $1.6 million recovery against the state under a Baltimore City Circuit Court judge’s order issued last week.

The campus of Coppin State University. Coppin is one of 11 institutions in Maryland that will be giving a total of $1.6 million in refunds to alumni unlawfully denied in-state tuition rates as ordered last week by a Baltimore judge. The ruling ends 13 years of litigation. (Maximilian Franz/The Daily Record)

The campus of Coppin State University. Coppin is one of 11 institutions in Maryland that will be giving a total of $1.6 million in refunds to alumni unlawfully denied in-state tuition rates as ordered last week by a Baltimore judge. The ruling ends 13 years of litigation. (Maximilian Franz/The Daily Record)

Judge Althea M. Handy’s directive ended 13 years of litigation that began with a University of Maryland School of Law student alleging she was unfairly charged an out-of-state tuition rate and grew to a class of students and alumni suing the state’s university system for similar practices at about a dozen schools. The class members will each receive tuition refunds or student loan reimbursements of between $1,212 and $71,445, according to their lawyers.

The University System of Maryland and the state attorney general’s office could have ended the case sooner but “made absolutely no effort to resolve this matter,” attorney Anthony M. Conti said in a statement Monday.

“Many of the students we represented have been working in Maryland as teachers, doctors, attorneys and in other professions for over a decade,” added Conti, of Conti Fenn & Lawrence LLC in Baltimore. “These students and new professionals were always tax-paying Maryland residents that were always entitled to receive in-state tuition rates.”

David Nitkin, spokesman for Maryland Attorney General Brian E. Frosh, stated in an email message: “The affected students at Maryland universities have received the compensation the court decided they should have. Payments to students began as early as 2009, and continued over a period of years. This case took significant time to resolve because of issues such as interest owed on student debt. The Office of the Attorney General worked hard to resolve all outstanding issues as expeditiously as possible.”

The initial lawsuit was brought in October 2002 by Karyn Bergmann, who lived in Virginia when she enrolled in law school but later moved to Maryland. She petitioned the university to reclassify her as an in-state student, a designation that comes with a significant tuition break.

At the time, among the factors that went into the university’s decision on a student’s in-state status was whether he or she was financially independent. To be considered financially independent, students would have to demonstrate that they earned enough money annually, not including student aid grants or loans, to cover half of their school expenses.

Bergmann, a full-time student, could not meet the requirement of financial independence and was denied in-state tuition, even though other factors indicated she was a Maryland resident and not in the state solely to get an education. In 2002, she sued the university system, with other plaintiffs joining her in 2003.

The plaintiffs then filed for class-action status, but the Baltimore City Circuit Court granted summary judgment to the University System of Maryland.

However, the Court of Special Appeals agreed with the plaintiffs in a reported 2006 decision, finding the USM’s policy on in-state status violated the equal-protection and due process provisions of the Maryland Constitution.

The court sent the case back to the circuit court with instructions to consider certifying the plaintiffs as a class and ordered that the Board of Regents establish criteria for rebutting a presumption of financial dependence. The board did revise its policy.

In 2007, Baltimore City Circuit Judge M. Brooke Murdock certified a class consisting of students at any state school who appealed their denials of in-state residency status because of the financial-dependence presumption.

Murdock also ordered that USM review each class member’s petition for in-state status.

Reclassified students were entitled to a refund for the difference between in-state and out-of-state tuition for the semesters they petitioned for in-state status and all subsequent semesters. Students were also entitled to recover any loan interest paid for the semesters in which they were improperly assessed out-of-state tuition.

According to Conti, the schools that must provide tuition refunds are the University of Maryland, Baltimore; University of Maryland, Baltimore County; University of Maryland, College Park; University of Maryland Eastern Shore; University of Maryland University College; Bowie State University; Coppin State College; Frostburg State University; Salisbury University; Towson University; and the University of Baltimore.

The circuit-court case is Karyn S. Bergmann et al. v. Board of Regents of the University System of Maryland et al., 24C02005740.

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