Johnson Hall, located near the center of the University of Oregon campus in Eugene, Ore., is the university’s main administration building. (Marissa Willke/Emerald)

Students are suing the University of Oregon, alleging a breach of contract, and are seeking repayment for tuition and fees charged after UO shifted to remote operations due to COVID-19.

The class action lawsuit was filed on March 19 in Multnomah County Circuit Court by Lane County law clerk Caine Smith on behalf of the students. Smith declined to comment due to pending litigation. 

Hagens Berman, which has eight offices in the U.S. and one in London, is the law firm representing the students. The firm has filed similar lawsuits against 20 other universities, but its website says its investigation is not limited to universities named in litigation. 

“Hagens Berman believes that institutions of higher learning have no right to keep the tuition and fees charged given the coronavirus outbreak and lack of options to students,” the firm’s website reads. “We think tuition payers and those paying fees deserve compensation.” 

According to the firm, multiple cases have been filed because it has received inquiries from hundreds of students from different universities. It is continuing to investigate claims against other institutions. 

On March 18, King County Superior Court judge Judith Ramseyer upheld claims to tuition repayment at the University of Washington, which is among the universities the firm has filed a suit against, alleging a breach of contract and unjust enrichment by UW. 

Steve Berman, an attorney representing the students, wrote in a press release, “the court appropriately rejected UW’s argument that our client, a graduate student at UW, held deficient claims unless he stopped his education and withdrew from school.”

According to the firm, motions by the universities to dismiss cases have also been denied in whole or in part at five other universities, including the University of Miami, Boston University and Brown.  

The complaint against UO alleges that the cost of instruction has decreased since it has become remote and it is, “thus profiting from COVID-19 while further burdening students and their families — many of whom have been laid off, become ill, lost loved ones, or are otherwise already bearing the brunt of the COVID-19 pandemic.”

The students also sued UO President Michael Schill and all members of the board of trustees. On behalf of the university and the board, UO spokesperson Saul Hubbard didn’t directly address questions from the Emerald, referring to the university's original statement.

In a statement to the Emerald on March 22, Hubbard wrote that the opposite is true and the cost to “provide quality instruction,” and protect the health of the campus’ community has actually been more expensive. 

“Nonetheless, the university has taken care to refund our students for a number of services and amenities that they were unable to access due to federal state and local health directives,” Hubbard wrote in a statement. 

In an email to the Emerald, Hubbard sent a full breakdown of estimated losses the university sustained. The document, which includes estimates through June 30, shows that the one-time COVID-19 costs and lost revenue total almost $210 million. Of that total, lost revenue accounts for about $164.5 million. 

Additional costs, which include technology, student refunds, and sick leave, accounts for approximately $45.5 million. The estimated cost for technology totaled about $2 million.  

Hubbard said that last spring UO refunded room and board fees for all students who left the residence halls, as well as student union and rec center fees. 

Because the rec center and other facilities were available to all students during the 2020-21 academic year, those fees were included in tuition because UO could not make adjustments on a case-by-case basis, Hubbard said.

In the March 22 statement, Hubbard said the UO will “vigorously defend this case,” and that the lawsuit is wrong on the law and the facts.

This story was updated to omit attribution to a source who spoke on background.