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Penn students enrolled in March 2020 may receive part of a $4.5 million settlement.

Credit: Gundappa Saha

A class action lawsuit against Penn seeking a refund for the switch to remote learning reached a proposed settlement of $4.5 million. 

On Nov. 3, plaintiffs Asha Smith and Emma Nedley – former Penn students – and the University announced a proposed settlement in response to the lawsuit, which was filed on April 30, 2020 in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania. The plaintiffs alleged that Penn “breached a contract” when it transitioned to remote learning during the COVID-19 pandemic, demanding a refund for a portion of their tuition and fees for the spring 2020 semester. 

According to the settlement notice, Penn previously denied all allegations of wrongdoing and there has been no finding of liability in court. However, citing interest in finding a swift resolution to the issue, Penn and the plaintiffs have agreed for the University to pay $4.5 million into a settlement fund to be distributed to students who fit the class definition in the settlement. 

In response to a request for comment, University spokesperson Ron Ozio directed The Daily Pennsylvanian to the University’s notice of a proposed class action settlement. Ed Ciolko, Nedley’s legal counsel, directed the DP to the settlement website upon a request for comment. 

Although the court has preliminarily approved the proposed settlement, the distribution of payments will occur only if the court grants final approval of the proposed settlement. The final approval hearing in this case is scheduled for Jan. 17, 2023, at 9:00 a.m. At that hearing, the court will consider whether to grant final approval of the proposed settlement, and whether to approve payment from the settlement fund to each settlement class representative and to class counsel’s requested attorneys’ fees.

On April 20, 2021, the court dismissed the tuition-based claims for breach of contract, unjust enrichment and conversion, and the fee-based claims for unjust enrichment and conversion. After the dismissal, the only remaining claim in the lawsuit is the plaintiff’s claim of breach of contract due to fees that were required to be paid, such as technology fees and clinical fees.

In the lawsuit, members of the class are defined as anyone who was enrolled in any Penn program after March 17, 2020 and assessed fees for the spring 2020 semester in a program that was not meant to take place online. Class members are not required to do anything to receive benefits of the proposed settlement. 

Wharton senior and Class Board 2023 President Derek Nhieu received a letter in the mail in early November containing details of the settlement. Nhieu agreed that Penn should not have charged additional fees, such as the technology fee, for the virtual spring 2020 semester. 

"If we ever transition online again, those fees are just not applicable. I feel like [the fees] are very much a disservice to students, when you try to charge them for these types of things," Nhieu said. 

Students who still have at least one full semester at Penn to complete as of 60 days after the effective date of the settlement are considered a “Continuing Penn Student” and will be automatically issued a credit to their Penn student account once the settlement becomes effective.

Students who are not considered “Continuing Penn Student[s]” according to the lawsuit’s definition will be sent payment to their last known mailing address on file with the University registrar. According to the notice, they can visit the settlement website to update their address, or elect to receive payment by Venmo or PayPal.

Nhieu said he is happy to be able to receive any amount of money from the settlement, but wishes that the announcement was more informative.

"I feel like if more people knew about this, maybe there would be discussion," Nhieu said. 

The date that the settlement becomes effective will occur after the last approval hearing and will be posted on the settlement website once it is known, according to the notice.

Individuals may exclude themselves from receiving money from the proposed settlement by mailing a signed opt out request to the settlement administrator before Dec. 19. Individuals who want to object to this proposed settlement may submit an objection, also before Dec. 19. 

Over 1,400 people signed a petition against Penn’s COVID-19 booster mandate last spring, citing high vaccination and positivity rates. Ethnomusicology Ph.D. student Vincent Kelley, who started the petition, told the DP at the time that Penn and other universities played a significant role in forecasting future COVID-19 policies in Philadelphia and around the country.

A series of lawsuits were filed against schools in the United States who shut down during the COVID-19 pandemic. Last November, Columbia University agreed to pay $12.5 million to settle a class action lawsuit that claimed it failed to refund fees for the spring 2020 semester. In September of this year, Brown University also agreed to pay $1.5 million to settle a class action lawsuit that claimed it failed to refund tuition and fees for the spring 2020 semester. The compensation will be divided among nearly 10,000 students who were enrolled at Brown during the spring 2020 semester.