Lawsuit Claims Self-Described Evangelical Liberal Arts University Recklessly Downplayed Seriousness of Pandemic, Refused to Close Campus as Pretext to Keep Money Rightfully Owed to Students
CHICAGO – April 14, 2020 – In the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, Liberty University and its president, Jerry Falwell Jr., placed their students at severe physical risk and refused to refund thousands of dollars in fees owed to them for the Spring 2020 semester, according to a class-action lawsuit filed today. The suit, filed in Virginia federal court, claims that though the school suspended most services and moved classes online as COVID-19 spread, it purported to remain open to avoid returning student fees for room and board and other activities. At the same time, Falwell Jr. recklessly downplayed the significance of the pandemic, claiming in an interview that people are “overreacting,” comparing COVID-19 to the seasonal flu, insinuating that the reaction was an attempt to harm President Trump, and even suggesting the virus may have been a “Christmas present” from North Korea and China. The plaintiffs are represented by DiCello Levitt Gutzler, Matthew S. Miller LLC, and MichieHamlett PLLC.
“Liberty’s attempt to profit from the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic is reprehensible and incredibly hypocritical in light of the values upon which the University says that it’s based”
Liberty claims to remain “open,” even as the governor of Virginia issued a stay-at-home order and the university itself moved classes online, prohibited gatherings of 10 or more people, converted all meals to take-out only, closed its recreation centers, moved convocations and church services online, ended student activities, suspended team sports, closed campus to visitors, encouraged staff to work from home, and postponed commencement. This placed students and their families in the difficult position of deciding whether to remain on a campus that has been effectively closed, in residence halls that were not outfitted to keep students safe, or move home and forfeit the amounts they had paid for room and board and other campus fees.
“Liberty’s attempt to profit from the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic is reprehensible and incredibly hypocritical in light of the values upon which the University says that it’s based,” said Adam Levitt, co-counsel for the plaintiffs and a partner at DiCello Levitt Gutzler LLP in Chicago. “This pandemic has already placed tremendous financial strain on many of Liberty’s students and their families, and the fact that Mr. Falwell would disingenuously keep the campus open as a pretext for holding onto student fees while putting their finances and health at risk is a stark illustration of where his true priorities lie.”
Approximate Liberty University student fees for the 2019-2020 academic year, exclusive of tuition, ranged from $9,200 to more than $16,000. The lawsuit alleges that rather than provide students with full and fair refunds for the Spring 2020 semester, Liberty instead chose to offer a $1,000 credit only to those students who lived in residence halls this academic year and elected not to return to campus residence halls with their dramatically reduced services and high health risks. This credit may only be applied to fees for the Fall 2020 semester, with students not returning to school in the Fall or choosing not to live in residence halls receiving nothing. Students who live off-campus will receive nothing from Liberty, despite having paid for campus fees and meal plans for the semester.
“While many higher education institutions have been empathetic to the upheaval that this pandemic has caused, and diligently worked with students and their families to provide appropriate refunds while shifting to e-learning opportunities, Liberty has, unfortunately, taken the opposite approach,” Levitt said.
“Profiteering off a pandemic is wrong. Putting people in harm’s way is wrong,” said Matt Miller, plaintiff’s co-counsel and founder of Matthew S Miller LLC.
The lawsuit states that students and their families have attempted to obtain refunds from Liberty, but the University has refused those requests, and in one instance, Falwell even resorted to insulting a parent on social media. This behavior, along with a history of similar behavior from Liberty and its supporters, caused the lead plaintiff to file her lawsuit as “Student A” out of fear of retaliation and harassment. In addition to Falwell’s Twitter outburst, another high-level school administrator contacted one student—and involved that student’s employer—who spoke out against the University and, in the student’s words, “chided” him for his comments about Liberty’s COVID-19-related conduct.
“Sadly, our client is justifiably concerned about her treatment from the university in the form of academic ramifications, public ostracism, or possibly even suspension or expulsion,” Miller said. “When you see the president of a university ridicule a parent on social media, you know that the university won’t do the right thing on its own. That’s why we filed this lawsuit.”
The complaint notes that: “Liberty has further shown its willingness to retaliate against anyone who criticizes Liberty’s COVID-19 response, going as far as seeking and obtaining arrest warrants for members of the media who wrote news stories critical of Liberty. Upon information and belief, people who have made social media statements about Liberty’s COVID-19 response or provided quotes in news stories on that same subject have received harassing or intimidating messages from Liberty supporters and critics alike.”
In addition to Levitt and Miller, the plaintiffs are represented by Amy E. Keller and Laura E. Reasons, also of DiCello Levitt Gutzler LLC; and Kyle McNew, Greg Webb, and Lisa Brook of MichieHamlett PLLC in Charlottesville, Va.
“Liberty’s decisions are affecting students nationwide, but with a significant impact on families here in central Virginia,” McNew said. “This is a simple case. When Liberty has shut down the majority of student services for the rest of the semester, and thus does not even have to incur the cost of running those operations, it should not be allowed to keep the fees paid by students to run those operations. Likewise, when Liberty is explicitly encouraging its students to remain at home for the rest of the semester as opposed to living on campus, it should not retain the fees paid to live on-campus for the remainder of the semester.”
The case is Student A v. Liberty University, Inc., in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Virginia.
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