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Marylander sues Howard for tuition, alleges lost semester

Plaintiff's attorneys seek class action

Howard University students finish loading belongings into a U-Haul truck as they move out of their dorm in Washington, Wednesday, March 18, 2020. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

Howard University students finish loading belongings into a U-Haul truck as they move out of their dorm in Washington, Wednesday, March 18, 2020. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

A newly graduated Howard University student from Baltimore County  filed suit against the school Thursday in federal court, seeking prorated tuition and fee reimbursement for a spring semester he said did not live up to the school’s promise of an enriching campus experience as classes were conducted online due to efforts  to stanch the viral spread of COVID-19.

Lawyers for Isaiah Payne, who graduated this month, are urging the U.S. District Court in Baltimore to certify the lawsuit as a class action by more than 100 “similarly situated” students at the Washington-based university. The school converted from in-class instruction to online lessons March 16 while providing no reimbursement of the approximately $13,453 undergraduate students paid in tuition and fees for the spring, according to the lawsuit.

“As a result of the closure of defendant’s facilities, defendant has not delivered the educational services, facilities, access and/or opportunities that Mr. Payne and the putative class contracted and paid for,” the complaint stated.

“The online learning options being offered to Howard students are subpar in practically every respect, from the lack of facilities, materials, and access to faculty,” the complaint added. “Students have been deprived of the opportunity for collaborative learning and in-person dialogue, feedback and critique. The remote learning options are in no way the equivalent of the in-person education that plaintiff and the putative class members contracted and paid for.”

Payne and the putative class members are represented by attorneys from Silverman Thompson Slutkin & White LLC in Baltimore and Bursor & Fisher PA in Walnut Creek, California, and Miami, Florida.

William N. Sinclair, the Silverman Thompson attorney who signed the complaint, did not return telephone and email messages seeking comment Friday afternoon.

The university’s media relations department also did not return a request for comment.

Payne’s lawsuit joins the scores of similar ones filed by students and parents across the country seeking refunds of fees after in-person classes were canceled and courses were converted to online-only offerings.

The lawsuit alleges Howard breached its contract with the students by not providing the educational quality and environment advertised, as well as the related allegation that the university unjustly enriched itself by not returning the tuition and fee payments for the roughly 50 percent of the spring semester that Payne and his counsel allege was lost beginning March 16.

Undergraduate tuition for the semester was about $12,483 in addition to a mandatory fee of $970, according to the complaint. Half of that total would be about $6,727 per student.

Howard has more than 6,000 undergraduate students, according to university data.

The lawyers are requesting a jury trial and seek compensatory and punitive damages for each of the class members as well as an award of reasonable attorneys’ fees, expenses and costs, according to the complaint.

The federal court has jurisdiction over the contract claim based on the diversity of citizenship between at least one class member, Isaiah Payne of Maryland, and the defendant, District of Columbia-based Howard University; more than 100 putative class members; and an amount in controversy exceeding $5 million, the complaint stated.

The case is docketed as Isaiah Payne, individually and on behalf of all others similarly situated, v. Howard University, No.1:20-cv-01314-RDB.

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