Cases & Deals

Chamberlain University obtains Sixth Circuit affirmance dismissing breach of contract lawsuit

Client(s) Adtalem Global Education Inc.

A Jones Day cross-office team secured a significant appellate victory in the Sixth Circuit for Chamberlain University, a nursing school with campuses in 15 states and a subsidiary of Adtalem Global Education. A student at Chamberlain's Cleveland campus alleged that Chamberlain breached its contract with students and was unjustly enriched when it converted all in-person classes to online instruction in March 2020 as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. The plaintiff sought to represent a class of all students enrolled in Chamberlain's campus-based nursing programs and demanded a refund of certain tuition and fees as a result of the conversion to online instruction.

The U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Ohio granted Chamberlain's motion to dismiss and entered judgment in favor of Chamberlain on all claims, finding that (1) Chamberlain has an enrollment agreement that outlines the duties and obligations between the parties; (2) the agreement did not guarantee in-person education and reserved the right of the University to change the method of instruction due to circumstances outside of its control, such as the pandemic; and (3) even if the Court could look at representations made outside of the agreement (for example, the University's catalogs and handbooks), plaintiff failed to point to a promise for exclusively in-person education.

The plaintiff appealed the trial court’s decision, and a unanimous Sixth Circuit panel affirmed the grant of motion to dismiss and held that (1) the enrollment agreement governs the parties relationship, and plaintiff did not plead facts sufficient to show that Chamberlain promised in-person education under all circumstances; (2) the provision in the agreement giving Chamberlain the right to modify courses did not render the contract illusory and unenforceable; and (3) the implied breach of contract claim failed because there is an explicit contract. The Sixth Circuit's decision is the first affirming a district court's full dismissal of a student's COVID-19 tuition refund claims and clarifies that under Ohio law, courts define the terms of a student and university's contract by examining the university catalog, handbook, and other guidelines supplied to students only when no explicit contract between the student and university exists.

Tanesia Dean v. Chamberlain University, LLC, No. 21-CV-00145 (N.D. Ohio), aff'd, No. 21-3821 (6th Cir.)