On behalf of roughly a quarter million University of California students, UC Davis student Claire Brandmeyer filed a federal class-action lawsuit in Oakland against the UC on Monday, calling on one of the largest academic systems in the world to return its spring term student fees back to students.
The lawsuit comes on the heels of mounting criticism against universities for holding back student fees amidst the coronavirus pandemic, a point of contention that has led some to question the financial intentions of academic institutions, such as the UC, during times of crisis.
“Other higher education institutions across the United States that also have switched to e-learning and have requested that students leave campus have recognized the upheaval and financial harm to students and/or their families from these decisions and have provided appropriate refunds,” the lawsuit states.
“University of California, unfortunately, has taken the opposite approach by failing to provide any refunds of fees, despite requests from students and families,” the lawsuit continued. “University of California is, in essence, profiting from this pandemic.”
Students who have paid “any fees” to the UC for this spring term are included in the lawsuit and will have their student fees reimbursed if the court sides with the plaintiff, Brandmeyer, according to Noel Garcia, an associate attorney for Cowper Law who is working with a team of six lawyers on the case.
The specific fees that would qualify for reimbursement, however, “will be proven at trial,” according to the lawsuit.
While student fees differ by campus, each UC student pays a mandatory $1,128 Student Services Fee each year, as well as a number of campus-based mandatory fees. At UC Santa Barbara, for example, that includes an additional $103.50 RecCen2 Expansion fee, a $60.06 UCen Expansion fee and a $39.39 Transit System fee, among others.
“I was at home. I wasn’t using the library and I wasn’t using the gym and I wasn’t using the pool. But I was paying for it,” Brandmeyer, a third-year psychology major, said in an interview with the Nexus.
Brandmeyer said she is frustrated by the UC’s dismissal of student pleas and petitions — one of which made rounds at UCSB in March — and for standing its ground on refusing to withhold student fees.
Though most student fees are relatively small compared to the price of tuition, students who choose to foot the bill with loans will be forced to shell out “thousands and thousands of dollars” down the line as their loans compound, she said.
“I’m very unsettled and I think it’s very hypocritical and revealing of what [the UC’s] true motive is,” she said. “At the end of the day, [they] just want to make money off us.”
The UC declined to comment on the litigation but maintains on its website that “Tuition and mandatory fees have been set regardless of the method of instruction and will not be refunded in the event instruction occurs remotely for any part of the Academic Year.”
In a similar class-action lawsuit filed by a Sonoma State University student against the California State University system on Monday, a spokesperson for the CSU system said it will “vigorously defend against the lawsuit,” EdSource reported.
Brandmeyer said the UC’s ambivalent response in supporting students prompted her to take legal action and “to be the voice” for those who are financially impacted by having their student fees withheld.
“When you’re accepted into the University of California, they were like, ‘We’re on your side. We want you to succeed. We want you to do research. We’re here to guide you through your four years,’” Brandemeyer said.
“But the minute you show up,” she added, “it’s kind of like, ‘Okay, well you’re on your own now.’”
Taking note of the student response to the UC, Garcia said her law firm looked to student-generated petitions for fee reimbursements as a framework for what eventually developed into multiple class-action lawsuits.
“We hope to achieve the goals that the students have wanted all along,” she said. “If you’ve seen those change.org petitions that were started, there are thousands of students across the country who have signed onto those.”
“We need to ensure that the schools will stop charging fees for services that are no longer available and return the funds that they’re holding onto for services that haven’t been provided,” Garcia added. “That money belongs to the students.”
Although there is no set date for the court to make a decision, Garcia maintained that the “goal is ultimately to get the students their money back… no matter how long that takes.”
Brandmeyer said she has faith that she will win the lawsuit, noting the outpour of students who are working nearly full-time while balancing a packed schedule amidst the pandemic. With feelings of uncertainty, frustration and desperation in mind, “I think that a lot of people are going to be standing their ground with this,” she said.
“This is the point where a lot of people are saying enough is enough. [The UC] is saying ‘Oh, we’re saving this money for a rainy day,’” Brandmeyer said. “This is a rainy day.”