A lawsuit filed Tuesday in Los Angeles federal court alleges that USC is profiting from the coronavirus pandemic by refusing to refund unused portions of students' spring semester fees.
The complaint alleges breach of contract for USC's stated refusal to reimburse pro-rated portions of students' payments after the university was forced to close its campus due to the public health crisis.
USC issued a statement saying the university was aware of the proposed class-action complaint, which names student Latisha Watson on behalf of all USC students who paid spring fees.
"Led by its committed and dedicated faculty, USC pivoted immediately to deliver quality instruction in an online format when the entire world was impacted by COVID-19," the USC statement reads. "Faculty and staff have worked tirelessly to connect with students to ensure that academic work continues on track and that progress toward the completion of a USC degree continues.
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"This is an unprecedented time for all educators but with hard work and rigor, we have maintained our academic standards during the transition to online learning required by the Safer at Home orders. Our priority is the education and well-being our students. We will continue to follow the guidance of public health officials and make decisions that are in the best interests of the entire USC community."
Plaintiffs' attorney Benjamin Galdston said USC's "refusal to refund students' tuition and fees during this crisis is unconscionable."
"USC is one of the nation's most expensive private universities with a $6 billion endowment and flush with nearly $20 million in taxpayer-funded relief," Galdston said. "Having failed to provide what it promised students, USC cannot keep their money."
Last week, USC Provost Charles F. Zukoski said the school will not give partial tuition refunds for the spring semester or upcoming summer sessions even though the campus has shifted to online instruction.
"While this is not the semester any of us envisioned, we are continuing to provide a high-quality education, ensure academic progress towards degree, and offer a robust learning environment," Zukoski said in an email to the campus community. "Whether our instructors present their classes in person or online, they bring the same expertise, depth of knowledge, and commitment to their teaching, and students continue to earn credits toward a USC degree."
Zukoski's message came a day after students demanded refunds for campus fees in proposed class-action lawsuits against the University of California and California State University systems. Those lawsuits argue that the two public university systems should return millions of dollars to the 700,000 students they collectively serve because they can no longer fully access health care, campus centers and other services funded by their mandatory fees.
Watson, a USC graduate student scheduled to receive her master's degree in social work next spring, says she took out loans to pay $21,886 in tuition and fees for the current semester. The lawsuit states that she has not attended any in-person classes since March 13, and all of her classes have been moved online.
"The online classes plaintiff and her peers have been provided are not equivalent to the in-person, campus experience that plaintiff and other USC students chose for their university education,'' according to the lawsuit, which alleges the online classes are of ``substantially lower quality and are objectively worth less than the courses USC offers which are intended to be online from inception."
The lawsuit alleges that USC is profiting from the current crisis and is asking students and their families to shoulder an unfair financial burden.
The complaint seeks unspecified injunctive, declaratory and equitable relief, and any other available remedies resulting from the defendants' alleged "illegal, inequitable, and unfair retention of the funds paid by class members," Galdston said.
Zukoski said last week that planning is continuing for an eventual return to classes, with an announcement anticipated in the next two months about plans for the fall semester.