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Montana State University faces a lawsuit claiming it broke a contractual agreement with its students when it canceled in-person classes without offering to refund or reduce tuition and fees.

The class-action lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in September, is on behalf of students who paid tuition at MSU for in-person learning but received online learning in the spring due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Anthony Cordero, who was an MSU undergraduate student in the Spring 2020 semester, filed the lawsuit on behalf of himself and other students. Cordero, who is a resident of California, paid roughly $6,586 in tuition and fees for that semester, according to the suit.

“Cordero has not been provided a pro-rated refund of the tuition for his in-person classes that were discontinued and moved online, or the Mandatory Fee he paid after MSU’s facilities were closed and events were canceled,” the complaint says.

In early March, the university announced it would transition to full online learning on March 23 due to growing public health concerns around the coronavirus pandemic. It did not offer in-person classes again until August 17.

The complaint argues that since the students did not choose to attend an online-only higher education institution, but chose MSU and its advertised in-person educational programs, they were deprived of both the education and on-campus experiences they paid for.

“MSU’s failure to provide the services for which tuition and the mandatory fees were intended to cover since approximately March 23, 2020, is a breach of the contracts and breach of the covenant of good faith and fair dealing between MSU and Plaintiff Anthony Cordero and the members of the Class and is unjust,” the complaint says.

Dale Cockrell, a Kalispell-based lawyer representing Montana State University, confirmed he had received the complaint and said he was reviewing it. He said he expected to file a response toward the end of November.

Tracy Ellig, a spokesman for MSU, said the university doesn’t comment on pending litigation.

The lawsuit says the terms of the contractual agreement between MSU and the students was established in MSU publications, including its website and marketing materials, the admission application completed by students, and the acceptance letters MSU sent to students.

In addition to tuition, students also pay mandatory fees for on-campus services. The lawsuit says many of those were terminated or canceled around the same time as classes, including health and wellness facilities, fitness facilities, on-campus student and sport events, and an in-person commencement.

As an example, Cordero said he could not complete a computer engineering class project that required collaborative work with other students and access to an MSU lab that had closed.

The lawsuit argues students should be refunded or reimbursed for those fees, in addition to tuition.

Adrian Miller and Michelle Sullivan of Sullivan Miller Law in Billings are representing Cordero in the suit.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has created disruptions in all of our lives; that is not the fault of the students or MSU,” Miller said in an email to the Chronicle. “Yet, MSU has unfairly shifted the pandemic’s financial burden to its students, who have paid for benefits that they did not receive.”

The lawsuit says the online learning that was offered to MSU students was “sub-par in practically every aspect” compared to the in-person learning they once received.

“MSU does not get to keep the students’ money when they were unable to provide all of the services,” Miller said.

Spring 2020 tuition, including mandatory fees, was about $3,685 for in-state undergraduate students and about $13,700 for out-of-state undergraduate students, according to the lawsuit. Tuition for in-state graduate students was about $12,812 and $18,425 for out-of-state graduate students for the spring 2020 semester.

Michael Tompkins of the New York-based firm Leeds Brown Law is also listed as an attorney for the plaintiffs, alongside Sullivan Miller Law firm.

An early October article by Law.com estimates roughly 200 class-action suits were filed against colleges after they closed campuses in the spring. The majority of the cases argued there was a breach of contract by the universities.

Leeds Brown Law is associated with about 60 of those lawsuits, according to Law.com. Tompkins did not respond to a request for comment Monday.

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Liz Weber can be reached at lweber@dailychronicle.com or 582-2633.

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