A student at Liberty University filed a lawsuit in federal court Tuesday accusing the school of keeping its dorms open amid the COVID-19 pandemic to avoid refunding students for room and board.
Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr. kept the school’s residence halls open after spring break, while colleges across the country shuttered for the rest of the semester. Falwell had repeatedly downplayed the severity of the virus in public statements.
“Liberty University is, in a very real sense, profiting from the COVID-19 pandemic — keeping its campus and campus services ‘open’ as a pretext to retain Plaintiff’s and the other Class members’ room, board, and campus fees, despite no longer having to incur the full cost of providing those services, all the while putting students’ finances and health at risk,” read the lawsuit, filed in the Western District of Virginia.
The plaintiff, referred to anonymously as Student A due to what the lawsuit describes as his “fear of retaliation and harassment,” is seeking class action certification on claims of breach of contract, unjust enrichment and conversion for the school’s refusal to refund students.
In a statement, the school vowed to fight the suit in court.
“While it’s not surprising that plaintiff class action attorneys would seek to profit from a public health crisis, we don’t believe this law firm or its single client speaks for the vast majority of our students,” said the statement, obtained by TPM. “Liberty’s attorneys will defend against this lawsuit, which is without legal merit.”
The school will also continue to keep the dorms open to students who choose it as “their safest option,” and maintains that no student on campus has yet tested positive for infection from COVID-19, per the statement.
In addition to the the suit’s accusation of money-grubbing in the face of a public health crisis, the student claimed that most of the services on campus — including the gym, church and group activities — were shut down, leaving the campus open in name only. Liberty skimped on offering refunds to students who left the dorms or could no longer use the on-campus services, the lawsuit alleged, offering only a $1,000 credit to be put towards the fall 2020 semester or to graduating students’ accounts. That money was not available to students who lived off campus, would not be returning in the fall or who didn’t submit a claim by March 28.
The lawsuit also emphasized that the dorms which the school welcomed students back to created a living situation out of sync with guidance from the CDC.
“Put simply, even when Liberty claims that remaining on-campus and using on-campus services is purportedly a viable option, residence halls at Liberty are not designed to safely house students in the event of a pandemic and, in order to stay safe, a vast majority of the students must move out in order to practice safe, social distancing in accordance with recommendations by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (“CDC”),” the complaint said.
The lawsuit is just the latest legal tangle Liberty has become ensnared in since Falwell flouted public health guidance and flung wide the doors of the school.
After becoming the subject of numerous media reports, including from TPM, Falwell retaliated against ProPublica and the New York Times, accusing their reporters and photographers of committing criminal trespass in the course of reporting the stories. He posted pictures of warrants signed by the Liberty University Police Department for their arrest.
“I don’t think God wants Christians to just sit back and not protect what they believe in and protect the people they have a fiduciary responsibility to protect,” he said on the right-wing radio program “The Todd Starnes Show.”
Read the student’s lawsuit here: