Columbia University to pay $12.5 mln to settle COVID-19 refund claims

Uris Hall is seen at Columbia University during the outbreak of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Manhattan, New York, U.S., May 27, 2020. REUTERS/Caitlin Ochs

NEW YORK, Nov 24 (Reuters) - Columbia University agreed to pay $12.5 million to settle a lawsuit by students who claimed it failed to refund fees when it moved classes online in the spring 2020 semester because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

A preliminary settlement of the proposed class action was filed on Tuesday night, and requires approval by U.S. District Judge Jesse Furman in Manhattan.

Columbia will refund $8.56 million in fees for student activities, health services and the use of its gyms, libraries and other facilities, and pay nearly $4 million to avoid the risks of further litigation.

The Ivy League school had previously given a partial fee refund. Roy Willey, a lawyer for the students, said the $8.56 million was 100% of what the university still owed. Columbia denied wrongdoing in agreeing to settle.

At least 261 lawsuits have been filed against U.S. colleges and universities over their alleged failure to refund tuition and fees when the pandemic forced them into remote learning, according to the law firm Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner.

Many of these lawsuits have been dismissed, including a case against Harvard University in June, because the schools had not contractually promised in-person instruction and access to on-campus facilities.

In February, Furman dismissed the Columbia students' tuition refund claims, deferring to the school's decisionmaking about maintaining its academic standards while promoting the public health, but let them seek fee refunds.

"The pandemic has imposed serious challenges on sustaining the teaching, research, patient care and public service at the core of Columbia's mission," Columbia said in a statement on Wednesday about the settlement. "Throughout this period, we have been committed to meeting the needs of our students."

Lawyers for the students may seek up to one-third of the settlement fund for legal fees.

The case is In re Columbia University Tuition Refund Action, U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York, No. 20-03208.

Reporting by Jonathan Stempel in New York; Editing by David Gregorio

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.