COVID-19 Class Actions Weekly Round-Up - May 2020 #4

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Bennett Jones LLPThe class actions landscape remains active, particularly in the United States, as some businesses re-open and a semblance of some degree of normalcy returns to certain pockets of North America. In the last two weeks, we have seen university students launch actions against universities that have failed to refund tuition fees, test-takers aggrieved by at-home administration of final exams, and Weight Watchers members alleging the venerable weight-loss company is “double-dipping” by charging users virtual workshop fees on top of their standard membership rates.

Negligence and Breach of Contract Actions

  • In New Hampshire, a claim has been filed against Southern New Hampshire University after the school closed its physical campus and shifted all learning online. The school normally offers two types of “experiences” for students: the “Campus Experience”, which costs roughly US$17,000; and the “Online Experience”, which costs roughly US$4,800. Relying in part on the differential pricing, the plaintiff argues that the putative class is entitled to a refund of tuition and fees paid for in-person educational services which have not been provided. In Massachusetts, similar claims have been launched on behalf of students at Northeastern and Harvard University.
  • In California, a claim has been launched against the College Board, alleging errors with the online administration of its Advanced Placement exams. After schools transitioned to online learning in mid-March, the College Board shifted its AP exams to an at-home format despite concerns about unfairness to students who lacked quiet home workspaces or Internet access. The claim alleges that the College Board “knowingly discriminated” against under-resourced students, disabled students, and students in remote locations, and alleges breach of contract, negligence and unjust enrichment among other claims for relief.
  • Also in California, a customer has sued Sea World over the company's decision to keep charging membership fees during the pandemic despite Sea World being closed.
  • In New York, a Weight Watchers member has started a class action for the company's “unconscionable” decision to keep charging membership fees despite the complete cessation of in-person workshops amid the pandemic. In March, Weight Watchers transitioned its “In-Person Workshop” program to virtual workshops because of COVID-19. The claim alleges that Weight Watchers is charging customers for the full price of their memberships and another virtual workshop fee, which the plaintiff likens to “double dipping”.
  • In Illinois, McDonald's employees have brought a claim alleging that McDonald's response to COVID-19 has placed employees and their families at risk. Some of the concerns raised include failure to provide adequate hand sanitizer, gloves and masks. The claim also alleges that McDonald's failed to notify employees when other employees became infected.

Actions Relating to Government Relief Programs

  • In California, student loan borrowers have sued Equifax and Trans Union, among other large financial institutions, alleging that the defendants are “compounding financial distress” by inaccurately reporting information about student loan payments that were suspended under federal law during the pandemic. Despite provisions in the CARES Act requiring student loans to be treated as paid while the federal government is not requiring any payments, the claim alleges that the defendants mistakenly reported the payments as “deferred”. The plaintiffs allege that this reporting error will harm their credit scores.

Insurance

  • In Pennsylvania, a yoga company has launched a class action against Cincinnati Insurance Company after the insurer denied its claims for business interruption insurance. The claim argues that the plaintiff's Business Protection Policies did not include an express exclusion for losses caused by a pandemic—unlike the separately bought “Crisis Event Expense“ endorsement coverage, which did include an explicit exclusion.

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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