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Appeals Court to decide whether UNC System students can seek refunds from COVID semester


By Carolina Journal Staff


The University of North Carolina System could be forced to refund portions of fees charged to students across the state in spring 2020, depending on the outcome of a case heard Tuesday morning at the N.C. Court of Appeals.


Five students and a parent sued the UNC System in May 2020. They argue that the university breached a contract to provide in-person instruction.


The plaintiffs are seeking partial refunds of tuition and fees charged for the semester that university campuses shut down because of COVID-19. Superior Court Judge Edwin Wilson dismissed their case in June 2021. The plaintiffs hope the Appeals Court will reverse that decision and allow the case to move forward.


“We have appellants that have completely performed under the contract,” said Blake Abbott, the attorney representing the students and parent. “They prepaid their tuition. They prepaid their fees. They know what they’re going to get, and that’s an on-campus education. But halfway through the semester, the university actually stops performing.”


“Instead of refunding appropriate amounts of tuition and fees and prepaid funds for meals, the university just elects to retain the money,” Abbott added.


The trial judge had multiple valid reasons for tossing the case last year, argued Jim Phillips, a private attorney representing the UNC System.


First, a state law approved in June 2020 (Senate Bill 208, Session Law 2020-70) specifically protected universities from the type of lawsuit the plaintiffs filed. Second, sovereign immunity blocks legal action against the university. Third, the plaintiffs failed to identify a contract that could have been breached.


“North Carolina law is clear that in the education context it is not enough to point to and rely on statements in websites, in handbooks, in bulletins, in marketing materials, and the like for the terms of a contract,” Phillips said.

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