Class-action lawyers may have frowned when Cornell University agreed to pay just $3 million last fall to settle a lawsuit seeking tuition refunds from its shutdown of classroom instruction early in the COVID-19 pandemic – a far cry from Ivy League peer Columbia’s $12.5 million payout for the same actions two years earlier.
They are likely grinning now that a comparably sized but less prestigious private university, blocks from the White House, has agreed to pay much more than Cornell, raising the prospect of more big payouts for class counsel well into 2024.
They were warned.
Cheering for the litigation and resulting settlement: one of GWU’s most vocal and feisty law professors, John Banzhaf, who pioneered public interest lawsuits against Big Tobacco and has needled the administration on free speech and students’ rights for years.
Banzhaf took a victory lap Thursday after GWU alerted eligible students, noting he publicly encouraged Revolutionaries and students nationwide to sue for refunds from COVID dorm evictions and warned colleges resuming “Zoom U” amid the Omicron variant surge they were legally vulnerable.
He also promoted and celebrated early rulings against universities, such as a Florida federal court’s rejection of Barry University’s argument that in-person and online education were functionally the same, which laid the groundwork for a $2.4 million settlement in fall 2021.
Longterm, though, universities may be better off losing these than having courts rule that their in-class product is no better than Zoom classes. . . .