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Why did Lindenwood students’ suit succeed where Wash U’s failed? Online pricing

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File photo / Kayla Drake
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St. Louis Public Radio
Lindenwood University recently settled a lawsuit over its pandemic-driven switch to online courses in 2020.

Earlier this month, Lindenwood University agreed to pay $1.65 million to settle claims that its online offerings during the pandemic were “subpar in practically every aspect.”

That won’t mean much money for the affected students — the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reports that each student will get roughly $185. But it’s still better than the outcome for students at Washington University. A similar lawsuit over online offerings there was dismissed entirely by a federal judge.

Both lawsuits involved claims of breach of contract, unjust enrichment and coercion. Both involved the sudden pivot to online classes in the early days of the pandemic. So what was the difference?

Simple, said Nicole Gorovsky, an attorney at Gorovsky Law: “Lindenwood itself valued its online classes as lesser than in-person classes.”

Gorovsky continued: “If you wanted to be an online student at Lindenwood, you could go for a lesser tuition price than if you went in person. And so the court kind of hung its hat on that and said, ‘They value this differently.’”

Listen to St. Louis on the Air's Legal Roundtable

Washington University also offered online courses before the pandemic. But unlike Lindenwood, where they were an option for undergraduates, Wash U’s were part of the Professional and Continuing Education program. As U.S. District Judge Sarah Pitlyk noted in her opinion, “Where [Wash U] offers a particular class both in person and online, tuition is the same regardless of the method of instruction.”

Generally, Missouri law prohibits the courts from “micromanaging” a university’s educational offerings, said Dave Roland, director of litigation for the Freedom Center of Missouri.

But in Lindenwood’s case, he added, “the court doesn't have to make that valuation because the university itself already made that valuation. And based on the university's own assessment of the tuition paid, if you attend in person versus the tuition paid if you attend online, we can conclude that the services provided were not equivalent.”

Even so, Roland noted, Lindenwood’s settlement suggests the case was a weak one.

“I actually think that there was a very reasonable chance that the school could have prevailed if they continued the fight,” he said. “It may have just been a financial decision or decision about goodwill to say, ‘Well, we're just going to go ahead and have a settlement at this point.’”

Eric Banks, a former city counselor now at Banks Law, agreed. “This is a very miniscule settlement.”

The attorneys discussed the case as part of St. Louis on the Air’s Legal Roundtable. The panel also talked about two wildly different cases involving former Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens.

The Republican candidate for U.S. Senate is implicated in litigation over staff use of a disappearing text app, which advocates say has grave consequences for Missouri’s open records law. He’s also fighting a bitter child custody case and sought phone records in an effort to prove no less than Karl Rove was using the litigation to derail his political future.

As the panel discussed, Greitens dropped his request for Rove’s records long before a judge could rule — but has continued to use the request, and his conspiracy theory around it, in political fundraising.

The panelists agreed it would be impossible to build a defamation case over his claims, even if demonstrably false. “It's a problematic defamation case,” Gorovsky acknowledged. “But it certainly speaks to his veracity.”

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Emily Woodbury, Kayla Drake, Danny Wicentowski and Alex Heuer. Avery Rogers is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Sarah Fenske served as host of St. Louis on the Air from July 2019 until June 2022. Before that, she spent twenty years in newspapers, working as a reporter, columnist and editor in Cleveland, Houston, Phoenix, Los Angeles and St. Louis.

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