North Carolina judge dismisses UNC student suit seeking virus refunds

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A trial judge was correct to dismiss a lawsuit filed by then-University of North Carolina students seeking tuition, housing and fee refunds when in-person instruction was canceled during the 2020 spring semester as the coronavirus pandemic began, the state Court of Appeals ruled Tuesday.

Several students at UNC system campuses and a parent who paid to enroll her daughter contend they deserve pro-rated reimbursements when system campuses were shuttered in March 2020 and instruction was transferred online. The plaintiffs also wanted similar refunds for other students within the 17-campus system who were affected.

The General Assembly passed a law in 2020 that gave public and private colleges immunity from pandemic-related legal claims for tuition and fees for acts occurring after a COVID-19 emergency was announced until June 1 of that year.

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The law weighed heavily in Tuesday’s unanimous opinion by a three-judge panel. Court of Appeals Chief Judge Donna Stroud wrote that the plaintiffs alleged adequately that they had implied contracts with the UNC system for academic and related services. But the 2020 law was constitutional as applied to the lawsuit claims, Stroud wrote, meaning the case was barred from moving forward.

The appeals court upheld a June 2021 decision by Superior Court Judge Edwin Wilson, Jr., who had sided with the UNC Board of Governors — the lawsuit defendants — and dismissed the case. But he had not described his reasoning, according to Tuesday’s opinion, which was agreed to by Judges Allegra Collins and Jeffery Carpenter.

In an opinion written by Stroud in October in a separate matter, a Court of Appeals panel ruled that other UNC students could continue their lawsuit seeking monetary damages for fees they paid before in-person fall 2020 classes were canceled due to COVID-19. The 2020 legal immunity law didn’t apply here because the alleged damages happened outside its time limitations. The state Supreme Court hasn’t yet ruled on a request by the UNC board to hear an appeal in that case.

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