Four years after COVID shutdowns, KU still facing class action lawsuit over whether students should get refunds

photo by: Shawn Valverde/Special to the Journal-World

The University of Kansas campus is pictured in this September 2023 aerial photo.

There’s a chance thousands of University Kansas students who were shut out of in-person classes in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic might win partial refunds for tuitions and fees they paid KU that semester.

If those refunds ever come — which is still very much in question — they may have to thank, in part, Kansas State University students.

Attorneys for students and KU spent more than an hour on Monday arguing whether a class action lawsuit seeking tuition and fee refunds for the Spring 2020 semester should be dismissed. KU attorneys have been arguing hard for dismissal, and mostly have been winning.

Douglas County District Court Judge Kay Huff in 2022 dismissed many of the claims made by students that KU was obligated to provide tuition and fee refunds since in-person classes were suspended for much of the Spring 2020 semester.

But after Huff’s retirement, the case is now with Douglas County District Court Judge Mark Simpson, who on Monday heard arguments that a 2023 ruling by the Kansas Court of Appeals involving a similar refund case at Kansas State University should also apply to the KU case.

In the Kansas State case, the appeals court ruled that the Student Financials Responsibility Statement that each K-State student is given is a form of a contract between the university and students. The appeals court stopped far short of saying K-State owed refunds to students, but the court found it is too early in the process to dismiss the case. The financial responsibility statement at K-State says the university will provide “educational services” to K-State students in exchange for their tuition and fees. The appeals court ruled that the students suing for refunds should be given a chance to argue that the phrase “educational services” means in-person classes.

KU also issues a Student Financials Responsibility Statement to its students, and it says KU will allow for “enrollment and attendance” in exchange for tuition and fees. Attorneys for the KU students argued that enrollment and attendance pledge, especially when combined with KU’s written policies, amounts to a promise to provide in-person classes.

Attorney Michael Tompkins, with New York-based Leeds Brown Law, told the court that KU’s Code of Student Rights and Responsibilities states that “opportunities for learning in the classroom and on the campus shall be provided by the university.” The fact that the second half of the Spring 2020 semester was off-campus and online for students is a problem, Tompkins argued.

But Anthony Rupp, KU’s attorney with Overland Park-based Foulston Attorneys at Law, told the court that Tompkins left out one key word from that statement in KU’s student code. The code says KU shall provide “appropriate” opportunities for classroom and on-campus learning. In the spring of 2020, both the governor and Douglas County officials had issued stay-at-home orders to slow the spread of COVID-19. Rupp argued it would have been entirely inappropriate for KU to hold on campus classes.

“KU did exactly what it should do,” Rupp said.

Students, though, are not arguing that KU should have had in-person classes during the pandemic, Greg Wright, an attorney for the students, told the court. Wright, who is with Prairie Village-based Sharp Law, said students are arguing that KU should not get to keep the full amount of fees charged by the university, especially since some of the fees were for services such as KU buses and the KU student recreation center, both of which were closed while campus was shut down. Tompkins is making a similar argument as it relates to tuition dollars received by KU.

KU and its lawyers made several arguments for dismissal of the case, including the fact that KU has a policy for requesting refunds and that the students in this case did not follow it. KU also argues the state of Kansas has a process for hearing such requests for “special claims,” which is a necessary step the students would have to go through before being eligible to file a lawsuit against the university.

Simpson heard the arguments on Monday, but did not issue a decision on KU’s motion to dismiss the case. A written ruling is expected in the coming days or weeks.

If the case is allowed to proceed, it likely will be another year or more before the matter ever makes its way to a trial. Plaintiffs in the case include two Douglas County residents who attended KU during the 2020 Spring semester, Pierce and Paxton Neff. Other plaintiffs in the case are Julianne Waters, a Johnson County resident, and a fourth plaintiff who is a Johnson County resident who was allowed to file as a Jane Doe in the case. That case is Neff et. al vs The University of Kansas. In a separate case that has been been consolidated with the Neff case, Robert Honeychurch, who attended classes at KU’s Edwards campus in Johnson County, is the sole plaintiff. That case is Honeychurch vs The University of Kansas.

But the significance of the case for KU goes far beyond the five plaintiffs. The attorneys have filed the case with class action status, meaning a court could provide an award that would be applied to potentially thousands of KU students who were enrolled at the university in the Spring 2020 semester.


Welcome to the new Our old commenting system has been replaced with Facebook Comments. There is no longer a separate username and password login step. If you are already signed into Facebook within your browser, you will be able to comment. If you do not have a Facebook account and do not wish to create one, you will not be able to comment on stories.