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Coronavirus: USC Sued After Refusing To Issue Refunds Of Campus Fees

LOS ANGELES (CBSLA) -- The University of Southern California is being sued for refusing to refund student fees after ending all in-person classes and campus events due to the coronavirus pandemic.

In a class action lawsuit filed Tuesday, the plaintiffs say that the university is profiting off of the public health crisis by not issuing refunds to students for unused portions of spring semester fees.

Last week, USC Provost Charles Zukoski announced that the university would not be issuing refunds for spring or summer sessions.

"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," he wrote in a message 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."

The complaint filed Tuesday alleges breach of contract for USC's refusal to reimburse portions of students' fees after the university was forced to close the campus due to COVID-19.

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."

The lawsuit names student Latisha Watson on behalf of all USC students who paid spring fees.

RELATED: USC Defends Acceptance Of $20 Million In Federal Coronavirus Relief Funds Amid Backlash

Watson, a USC graduate student, says she took out $21,886 in loans to pay 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 university released a statement in response to the lawsuit, stating that its transition to online classes does not diminish the quality of the education students are receiving.

"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.

"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."

One day before Zukoski informed the USC community that refunds would not be issued, class action lawsuits were filed against the University of California and California State University systems with similar complaints.

The proposed class action suits — filed "on behalf of all people who paid fees" for the spring 2020 academic semester or quarter at any of the CSU or UC campuses — allege despite ending most campus activities, CSU and UC unfairly and unlawfully refused to offer refunds for the unused portion of their mandatory campus fees.

The fees covered student use of health facilities, health services, instructional-related activities, student association dues and the use of student centers, according to the plaintiffs.

"Students' lives have already been turned upside down by this crisis, and the decisions of CSU and UC only serve to exacerbate their pain," Adam Levitt, one of the plaintiffs' lawyers, said. "Through these lawsuits, we encourage CSU and UC to reconsider their positions and make more fair, legal, and empathetic decisions for their students and their families."

(© Copyright 2020 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. City News Service contributed to this report.)

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