Students sue Falwell's Liberty University for not refunding spring fees

April 14 (Reuters) - Liberty University, the evangelical Virginia school, has been sued for refusing to refund fees for room, board and other activities to students despite the coronavirus pandemic.

The complaint made public on Tuesday said Liberty and Jerry Falwell Jr, its president, have downplayed the pandemic, while maintaining that the university remained “open” even after moving classes and church services online, converting meals to take-out only, ending student activities and suspending team sports.

“If you are paying to go to school on campus, and the on-campus education is taken away, it becomes a pretext not to make refunds,” Adam Levitt, a lawyer for the proposed class, said in an interview. “It’s like a car without an engine.”

Liberty said in a statement that the proposed class action had no legal merit, and that it would defend against it.

According to the complaint, the Lynchburg-based university charges $8,530 to $12,450 annually for room and board, and imposes fees, typically in the hundreds of dollars, for other services such as parking and student activities.

The complaint seeks to recoup pro-rated, “unused” costs incurred by students for the spring semester.

On-campus enrollment for the 2019-20 academic year totaled nearly 15,000, according to Liberty’s website.

The named plaintiff is an undergraduate identified as Student A, who according to the complaint remained anonymous because of a fear of retaliation and harassment.

Virginia Governor Ralph Northam last month issued a statewide stay-at-home order through June 10 to limit the spread of the coronavirus.

Liberty has offered $1,000 credits to students who chose to move out of residence halls for the spring semester, to be applied toward charges for the fall 2020 semester. It also said no on-campus student has tested positive for COVID-19.

“While it’s not surprising that plaintiff class action attorneys would seek to profit from a public health crisis, we don’t believe this law firm or its single client speaks for the vast majority of our students,” Liberty said.

Falwell became Liberty’s president in 2007.

He succeeded his late father, Jerry Falwell Sr, the prominent televangelist and Liberty’s founder.

Falwell has defended Liberty’s response to the pandemic, and the school has pledged to comply with all of Northam’s directives and applicable federal guidance.

The case is Student A v. Liberty University Inc, U.S. District Court, Western District of Virginia, No. 20-00023. (Reporting by Jonathan Stempel in New York; Editing by Dan Grebler)