Portland nonprofit not required to reimburse students whose studies abroad have been interrupted by the pandemic
A federal appeals court ruled that the Council on International Educational Exchange did not have to reimburse the costs of study abroad programs interrupted by the global pandemic.
Court documents show that the Portland-based nonprofit sent about 4,000 students home last spring when COVID-19 began to spread around the world. Among them was Annie Zhao, a Harvard College student in Texas who was attending the University of Amsterdam in the Netherlands when CIEE suspended the program.
Only students who could not complete their classes virtually were considered for a refund, and Zhao challenged this policy when she sued the nonprofit last summer for breach of contract and unjust enrichment. . She filed for class action status with the U.S. District Court in Maine to represent other students and interns who were also sent home and received no reimbursement for their fees. A judge dismissed the complaint in September, and Zhao took the case to the U.S. 1st Court of Appeals in Boston. The panel of judges heard oral arguments on the case in April and sided with the CIEE this week.
“CIEE did not violate the participant’s contract during the migration of Zhao’s courses and other participants online, but did not reimburse the services not provided”, their notice said.
The trial was one of dozens of legal challenges by students trying to recover tuition and other fees since the campuses closed last spring. In this case, the arguments focused on the drafting of a contract signed by the students of the CIEE. The lower court interpreted the contract to mean that students are not entitled to refunds if a program is canceled after it begins, and the appeals court agreed.
Sigmund Schutz, who represented Zhao, said on Wednesday he was reviewing the notice.
“This case was about the defense of the little guy – students and their parents paying a big company for studies abroad that were canceled,” he wrote in an email. âI am grateful to Ms. Zhao for her willingness to represent all CIEE students who suffered financial losses after CIEE canceled student accommodation and educational programs less than half of the program. We were hoping to get a fair refund for the students and their families, but the result of the notice is that the CIEE is keeping all the money paid for canceled student accommodation and student activities.
Schutz also represents the Portland Press Herald in First Amendment matters.
Chad Higgins, who represented CIEE, offered only a brief response from his client.
âThe CIEE is pleased that the court has approved its view on the contract and is also satisfied with the decision,â said Higgins.
The initial complaint stated that the cost of a study abroad program through the CIEE ranged from $ 15,000 to $ 25,000 per semester, and about a quarter of that was spent on accommodation and board. . The CIEE says it sends more than 15,000 Americans each year to study, intern and teach abroad. It also organizes more than 30,000 international exchange visitors to the United States. The organization is present at 63 sites in 42 countries.
Higgins did not respond to a question about the financial impact of the pandemic on CIEE operations. In March 2020, the association laid off more than 600 employees, including 248 who worked in the Portland office. The lawyer also did not respond to questions about how many employees still work for CIEE or for its headquarters in Maine.
Inside Higher Ed reported in May that lawyers have filed more than 300 lawsuits on behalf of students and parents demanding refunds after COVID-19 forced many colleges and universities to close their physical campuses. They found that judges dismissed many of these complaints at an early stage, but some courts had allowed cases to go to trial. And at least two colleges – Southern New Hampshire University and Barry University in Florida – have agreed to settle lawsuits for millions of dollars.
Among the cases still pending is a lawsuit against the University of Maine system. Two students filed a tuition reimbursement complaint after the system decided to move classes online last spring. That case has moved from a federal court to a state court, and a Cumberland County Superior Court clerk said on Wednesday that the judge is currently considering a motion to dismiss.
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