ABC News Exclusive: Harvard Law student sues university over tuition prices as classes remain online

Pgiam/iStockBy LAUREN LANTRY, ABC News

(NEW YORK) — A Harvard Law student has filed a lawsuit against the university because tuition prices and fees have remained the same despite classes moving to remote learning due to the coronavirus pandemic.

“I decided to sue Harvard because while they did make some effort … the first semester we were online to mitigate things, they just have not lowered tuition,” Abraham Barkhordar, 23, told ABC News in an exclusive interview.

“They’ve actually suggested that to mitigate the difficulties of online learning that we rent office space as students,” said Barkhordar. “I just felt overall disrespected and unheard by the administration. And I think, as I’ve learned this year, the way to get justice in America is through the legal system.”

In March, during the height of the pandemic and in the middle of the semester, Barkhordar said he was forced to move out of his on-campus housing with very little notice. He decided to go home, which involved flying across the country and moving back in with his parents in California, where he said disruptions were commonplace since five people were living in one home.

Barkhordar said he felt like he was at a disadvantage. Since law school relies on participation, he said he had to wake up at 5 a.m. for class. And without the student spaces like the library and the study groups that usually come with a Harvard Law School education — in addition to the difficulty of learning online — he began to fall behind in class.

In May, he finished his first year of law school, 3,000 miles away from the library he said he had previously “lived in.”

The law school announced that classes will remain virtual into the fall while tuition will remain at $65,875 – the same price as last year.

While Barkhordar’s lawsuit is strictly regarding this past spring semester, LeElle Slifer, one of the attorney’s representing Barkhordar, said they may amend the complaint later to include the upcoming fall semester. Under Massachusetts state law, a plaintiff cannot sue for an anticipated breach of contract.

This past spring, most universities and colleges across the nation went remote as the novel coronavirus swept across the nation. Classes were held over Zoom, many students moved back home and most tuition prices remained unchanged.

But by the end of the semester, more than 50 schools and universities faced legal complaints from students demanding that tuition or fees be refunded. Drexel University in Philadelphia, Columbia University in New York City, Michigan State, Vanderbilt, Brown, Berkley and the University of Colorado are some of the schools facing these legal challenges. In each claim, the plaintiffs — the students — center their argument around the fact that there was diminished value in an isolated, virtual education.

On Monday, Harvard University joined the list of schools to be sued by its own student, who is a named plaintiff.

The claims

The lawsuit alleges three claims against Harvard, the first being a breach of contract.

“Students signed up at the beginning of the semester, paid their tuition on the understanding that they would receive classes in person for the whole semester,” Slifer said. “That agreement wasn’t met. Classes went online halfway through, so that was a breach of that contract.”

The second claim of the lawsuit is unjust enrichment.

“By exacting the same tuition and fees from these students under these strange circumstances where you’re paying reduced overheads … ultimately, that unjustly enriches Harvard and other institutions like it because the students are paying for something that they are ultimately not getting,” Warren Burns, another attorney who represents Barkhordar, told ABC News.

The third claim is conversion.

“They converted that money that was for tuition into a benefit for themselves without actually giving the benefit to the students,” Slifer said.

Barkhordar said he’s bringing the lawsuit against Harvard in the hope it becomes a class action lawsuit, saying he’s fully prepared and ready to represent his fellow classmates, which could be considered an injured class in court.

“Plaintiff and Class Members did not intend to attend an online educational institution, but instead enrolled in Defendant’s institution on an in-person basis,” the class action lawsuit complaint says, referring to Harvard University as the defendant. “The online learning option Defendant offers is subpar in practically every aspect. The remote learning option is in no way the equivalent of the in-person education putative Class Members were promised when they committed to attend Harvard.”

ABC News reached out to Harvard University, but it declined to comment on the lawsuit. In a statement on its website, the school said: “As the situation continues to change rapidly, our top priority remains the health, safety, and well-being of our community, on and off campus.” The university also lists a series of online tools students and faculty can use to help shift to remote learning.

Remaining online this fall

In addition to the Law School, Harvard’s undergraduate college and some of the other graduate schools have also already announced that classes will resume online this fall to better protect the safety of its students and professors.

“In light of the daily news about the continuing health risks of the pandemic … we have found it necessary to conclude that Fall Term 2020 will be online,” John Manning, the Dean of the Law School, wrote to HLS students in an email sent earlier this month.

Barkhordar alleges that Harvard has actually taken away some of the mitigation efforts it put in place last spring. In the fall, he says, there won’t be unanimous pass/fail for all students, professors are not required to record their classes and the administration refused to redo registration — Barkhordar said he would have chosen classes differently had he known they would all be online. Upon hearing complaints from students regarding the struggles of online learning and the inadequacy of studying from home, Barkhordar said an administration official told students during a webinar to take out extra loans and rent office spaces to use as places to study.

“Overall, it just feels awful knowing that I’ll be at a disadvantage, and that the administration has done nothing to alleviate this disadvantage for students like myself,” Barkhordar said.

The Law School has dedicated “up to $1 million to support students facing challenges related to Internet access,” according to its website, and says that it is “developing an excellent online education experience” for its students. If students wanted to take a voluntary leave of absence, the deadline was extended until Monday.

Other prestigious law schools, such as Stanford and Georgetown, recognizing the critical importance of diaologue and the Socratic method, have announced their classes will be in person in the fall.

“The truth of the matter is we’re all in unsettled times and this is new territory for everyone,” said Burns. “But I think that calls for discretion and consideration on the part of institutions like Harvard and other schools. They really need to think about how they’re treating their students.”

While Harvard is not the first school to be sued, Slifer argued that this lawsuit may set precedent for other schools.

“Harvard is Harvard,” Slifer said. “It sets the tone for a lot of things that happen in the educational system in America. And if Harvard were to take that step and do the right thing by students — these are, you know, 18 to 20 something-year-olds who are taking out loans in their name — and if the university was able to cut them a discount on their tuition, I have a feeling that many schools would follow suit.”

An endowment of $40.9 billion

“I think the fundamental question has to be for a school with Harvard’s resources, is it fair to exact these exorbitant tuition and fees under the circumstances we’re facing?” Burns said in an interview with ABC News.

Harvard has one of the largest endowments of any institution in the United States. At the end of the last fiscal year the endowment value was $40.9 billion, according to Harvard’s 2019 financial report. That is higher than over half the world’s countries’ GDP.

While Barkhordar said he does receive some financial help from Harvard, he’s still had to take out loans. He said he’s paying more than $50,000 a year.

“I went to community college,” said Barkhordar, who eventually transferred to the University of California, Los Angeles. “My community college had a very different financial situation than Harvard, and Harvard Law School. The school can definitely afford to mitigate things for one year. They’re not some small organization.”

But Harvard’s endowment is structured. According to the financial report, “70% of the annual distribution is restricted to specific programs, departments, or purposes and must be spent in accordance with the terms set forth by the donor. Funds without donor restriction are more flexible.”

According to the report, Harvard spent 5% of its endowment from 2018 to 2019, which covered 35% of its annual operating expenditures. But if Harvard increases the payout, it could result “in endowment declines and reduced distributions in the future,” the report said.

But Barkhordar believes this time of crisis calls for heightened support for students from the university.

“This is one of the oldest, most prestigious law schools in the world,” Barkhordar said. “And that they’re hanging their students out to dry — and that they’re suggesting us to rent office space with our own money — is frankly ridiculous. And I’m glad the justice system gives me an opportunity to stand against it.”

To Burns and Slifer, Harvard’s response seems “tone deaf.”

“I don’t think that Harvard is treating students fairly,” Slifer said. “I’m an alum of Harvard Law School as well. I had the opportunity to study there — all three years in person — and I think that the administration is not really recognizing how much of a burden they’re placing on some of these students.”

Slifer recalled her time on campus as “a wonderful experience.” She had close, personal interactions with her professors, and politicians and Supreme Court Justices came to campus every semester.

“The students aren’t getting the benefit of any of that,” said Slifer, adding that despite classes going virtual, students are “still being charged full freight.”

While Slifer, Burns and their client could not comment on a potential settlement, they said they hope Harvard does “the responsible thing.”

“We would like nothing better than for Harvard to do the responsible thing and take action and give some relief to their students,” Burns said. “But we’ll just have to see what form that takes.”

Barkhordar — who said he wants to be a plaintiff’s lawyer upon graduation — added that he will not be intimidated by the potential repercussions.

“To me it feels like a duty,” Barkhordar said. “The school has wronged us and I have an opportunity to speak up — I have the bandwidth to do so — and it feels like the right thing to do.”

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