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A federal judge has ruled that students at Quinnipiac University can sue the institution for breach of contract and unjust enrichment over its decision last spring to abandon in-person instruction because of COVID-19.

The decision by Judge Kira A. Dooley of the U.S. District Court in Connecticut came in one of the dozens of lawsuits students and families have filed since most colleges shuttered their campuses as the pandemic spread across the country in March 2020. Many of the lawsuits have been dismissed because of courts' historical disinclination to interfere in colleges' academic decisions, refusing to get into messy judgments about the relative quality of virtual versus in-person learning and whether colleges have engaged in "educational malpractice."

But at least a few judges have allowed lawsuits that accuse institutions of breaching perceived contracts with students to deliver in-person instruction, and that's what Dooley did in this case. Quinnipiac sought to dismiss the original lawsuit, and the judge agreed to drop the students' parents as plaintiffs in the case (ruling that they don't have standing to sue). But she said the Quinnipiac students could try to prove that the university had broken a contractual promise to provide an in-person education.

"While discovery may ultimately defeat Plaintiffs’ ability to demonstrate the existence of an express or implied contract based on the … [published] materials, the Court deems Plaintiffs’ allegations sufficient at this stage to allow the inference of a specific promise to provide in-person instruction, and will accordingly deny the motion to dismiss the breach of contract claims," Dooley wrote. She also said the student plaintiffs had "adequately alleged" that they paid meaningful amounts for the benefits of in-person instruction and that "Quinnipiac accrued excess funds by moving its courses online."

"The question of whether the institution was unjustly enriched by retaining the Plaintiffs’ tuition -- which allegedly encompassed the costs of delivering in-person instruction and all of the attendant benefits that flow from it -- is a question improper for resolution on a motion to dismiss."

Dooley said those questions should be answered in a full trial.