Two New Jersey universities do not need to reimburse students for transitioning from in-person classes to total online instruction in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a recent decision by the Appellate Division of the New Jersey Superior Court. In Mueller v. Kean University, the appeals court held that the universities are immune from liability pursuant to the Emergency Health Powers Act (EHPA) because their decisions to pause in-person instruction were made in compliance with the executive orders issued by the Governor during a public health emergency to limit the spread of COVID-19.
Facts of the Case
On March 10, 2020, Kean University (Kean) announced that because of the COVID-19 pandemic, all classes would be held remotely beginning March 16, 2020. That same day, Montclair University (Montclair) announced that because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Spring Break would be extended, and beginning March 23, 2020, all classes would be held remotely. Kean and Montclair did not any hold in-person classes after March 6, 2020, for the rest of the spring semester.
Plaintiffs Andrew Mueller, and Athena Brock-Murray, fulltime undergraduate students at Kean University, and Colin Keyes, a fulltime undergraduate student at Montclair State University, subsequently filed putative class actions asserting claims for breach of contract, unjust enrichment, conversion, and money had and received. As described by the Appellate Division, the plaintiffs allege they lost the benefit of the in-person education and services that they paid for, without having their tuition and fees refunded to them. They claim Kean and Montclair did not “deliver the educational services, facilities, access and/or opportunities that they contracted and paid for.” Plaintiffs stated that they “did not choose to attend an online institution of higher learning,” and instead enrolled at Kean and Montclair “for an on-campus, in person curriculum.”
In their respective complaints, the plaintiffs sought a proportional refund through disgorgement of the tuition and fees they paid “for services, facilities, access and/or opportunities” that Kean and Montclair did not provide during the Spring 2020 semester due to the switch to online learning. In response, Kean and Montclair argued that that the EHPA immunized them from liability.
The EHPA states that a public entity and its agents, officers, employees, servants and representatives “shall not be liable for an injury caused by any act or omission in connection with a public health emergency, or preparatory activities, that is within the scope of the authority granted under [the] Act, including any order, rule or regulation adopted pursuant thereto.” However, an individual is not immune for an injury resulting from an act outside the granted authority or for “conduct that constitutes a crime, actual fraud, actual malice, gross negligence or willful misconduct.” The term “Injury” is defined as “death, injury to a person or damage to or loss of property.”
The trial court found that the EHPA’s immunity, which “shall be liberally construed,” extended to lawsuits like plaintiff’s, which alleged “a loss of property, albeit essentially monetary,” because of an entity’s actions in response to a public health emergency. The plaintiffs appealed.
Appellate Division’s Decision
The Appellate Division affirmed the dismissal, holding that the universities are immune from liability under N.J.S.A. 26-13-19.
In reaching its decision, the Appellate Division rejected the plaintiffs’ argument that the definition of “property” in N.J.S.A. 26:13-19(a) should not be interpreted to include money sought in a suit for breach of contract. According to the appeals court, in the absence of a specific definition for “property” in a particular statute, the definition of that term found in N.J.S.A. 1:1-2, which expressly includes money, should apply.
“We conclude that a proper interpretation of N.J.S.A. 26:13-19 incorporates the definition of ‘property’ found in N.J.S.A. 1:1-2, thereby extending the immunity afforded by the EHPA to public entities like Kean and Montclair against claims of breach of contract where the alleged breach occurred because those entities exercised powers and duties related to a public health emergency,” the court wrote.
The Appellate Division further found that the immunity afforded by the EHPA does not conflict with the State or Federal Constitutions, “as the statute is intended to promote the general health and welfare of New Jersey residents, employees, students, and visitors, thus giving it a ‘significant and legitimate public purpose.’” “Immunizing public entities from liability related to their actions in a statewide public health emergency is a key part of the legislative scheme, as it allows these entities to act quickly, efficiently, and fully to prepare for and react to such circumstances without fear of litigation consequences,” the court further explained.