Student files $5 million class action lawsuit against Harvard Law over online curriculum

A recent lawsuit filed by a second-year law student at Harvard is going after the Boston-area university for forcing students to attend classes online but refusing to credit or lower tuition for what he claims is a downgraded education and experience. 

Abraham Barkhordar, a California native who attended community college and then UCLA was previously most googled for his free guide on applying to law school, filed a lawsuit on June 22, 2020 with the U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts that outlines why he should be reimbursed. 

It states, “The online learning option Harvard offered following the termination of its in-person services is subpar in practically every aspect: lack of facilities, lack of materials, lack of efficient classroom participation, and lack of access to faculty.”

All law students pay a pretty penny — hundreds of thousands of them — to attend law school. At Ivy League schools, that tuition cost tends to be even higher, which is why Barkhordar says he’s suing Harvard not only for himself but on behalf of his classmates too.  

“Plaintiff therefore seeks, individually and on behalf of the Class, a proportionate reimbursement of tuition and fees for the Spring 2020 Term and a similar reimbursement for any subsequent academic term conducted in online format and for which Harvard charges tuition and fees at the same level or higher as prior years,” the lawsuit reads.

The complaint demands the university pay upward of $5 million in tuition reimbursement to all class members for the spring and for any future online academic terms for damages. 

“Harvard continues to charge for tuition and fees as if nothing has changed, reaping the financial benefit of millions of dollars from students despite the inferior online learning environment,” the lawsuit reads. “Therefore, all students paid full tuition for the Spring 2020 Term although they received no in-person instruction and had zero to extremely limited access to campus facilities following March 13, 2020.”

The lawsuit argues that Harvard is not known for its online class options like some other universities are and students ultimately deiced to go there for the learning environment and resources provided on campus. 

“Rather, a significant focus of Harvard’s efforts to obtain and recruit students pertains to the campus experience it offers along with face-to-face, personal interaction with skilled and world-renowned faculty and staff.”

According to the complaint, Barkhordar’s online courses in the spring were less rigorous than in-person classes and he had less interaction with his professors, whose expectations of students were lower. 

“The remote learning option is in no way equivalent to the in-person education that Plaintiff and other Class Members were promised in exchange for their commitment to attend Harvard and the tuition and fees many of them paid during the Spring 2020 Term,” the lawsuit reads. 

On March 10, Harvard announced that classes would go online beginning March 23 due to COVID-19. Barkhordar says he was forced out of his room on-campus with little notice and forced to fly home to California during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The attorney’s representing Barkhordar expressed that law students didn’t bargain for on online experience. 

“Students signed up at the beginning of the semester, paid their tuition on the understanding that they would receive classes in person for the whole semester," LeElle Slifer, one of the attorney’s representing Barkhordar, said. "That agreement wasn't met. Classes went online halfway through, so that was a breach of that contract.”

Harvard announced its decision to hold the Fall 2020 semester online as a response to COVID-19 still threatening lives. 

In the letter to students, Dean John Manning said students had until June 19 to decide if they wanted to defer enrollment and put their law degree on hold.

“We very much hope that you choose to remain in what we expect to be an exciting and enriching online academic and social program,” Meaning wrote. “But we want to be sure that you have a fair opportunity to make a decision that is right for you based on the best information we can provide you at this time." 

The law school plans to keep tuition at the same level of $65,875 even though the fall semester will be entirely remote.  

Barkhordar’s complaint argues that the choice between paying “outrageous tuition” for online classes and disrupting their education isn’t much of a choice at all.  And he says instead of a reimbursement, school officials suggest students pay more in other amenities they’d normally receive on campus, such as housing.

“The Harvard Law School administration even gone so far as to tell concerned students to take out an additional loan and ‘rent office space’ if they have trouble studying off-campus,” the lawsuit states. 

Slifer said they may amend the complaint to include the upcoming fall semester. 

Barkhordar’s complaint marks the second multi-million dollar lawsuit filed against Harvard for its online educational experience during the pandemic. The first was filed in late May by an anonymous student.

Harvard says it can’t comment on pending litigation, but the law school administration did address tuition concerns on its website, noting that it already canceled its expected tuition increase, but that cutting tuition is a University-level decision.

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