UC ordered to cough up $1.9 million to former vet students, court says

UC ordered to cough up $1.9 million to former vet students, court says

Veterinary students enrolled in 2003 could recover $16,000; university mulls appeal
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May 01, 2010

SAN FRANCISCO — Veterinarians who enrolled in the University of California-Davis' veterinary medicine program in 2003 may be up for a tuition reimbursement.

A San Francisco Superior Court ruled against the school in a more than four-year-old complaint about rising tuition. The final ruling, made in mid-March, orders the University of California (UC) system to repay $38 million in professional school fees to students who enrolled in its professional programs during the 2003-04 school year. That translates to about $1.9 million in tuition reimbursement to former veterinary school students.

At press time, the university was undecided on whether or not it would pursue an appeal of the court's decision.

The complaint, initiated by four former professional students at UC, argued that UC literature for the 2003-04 year promised students that professional degree fees would remain flat during their enrollment period. The marketing literature touted this flat fee beginning in 1994, but the university's Board of Regents increased fees beginning in late 2003 when faced with budget shortfalls, according to the court order. Students may have made decisions to attend UC based on this flat-fee promise, the judge's order stated.

"It was reasonable for students who accepted the university's offer of admission prior to Aug. 25, 2003 to believe the statement regarding the university's professional degree fee policy, as set forth in the last publicly available Official Fee Guide, would apply to them," the court's summary judgment says.

Nearly 3,000 former students from UC schools of law, medicine, dentistry, veterinary medicine, nursing, pharmacy and business are impacted by the judgment.

The university was ordered to reimburse the difference of professional degree fees from the original amount marketed during the 2003-04 enrollment, plus 10 percent interest, according to court records. For veterinary students, those fees increased from $6,565 to $10,565 from the 2003-04 term to the 2004-05 term, and by another $300 the following term.

Veterinary students enrolled during this period could stand to receive as much as $16,000 from the university.

A similar suit challenging student fee increases at UC, Kashmiri v. Regents of the University of California, also was decided in favor of UC students and was held up on appeal in early 2008. The case was cited repeatedly in the court's decision in this suit.

"The trial court made errors," says Ricardo Vazquez, a spokesman for the office of the president at UC. "We believe that the university never made any commitment to the students that their fees would remain constant during their enrollment."

If the university appeals the court's decision, it would not have to repay any award to plaintiffs until a ruling is made on the appeal.

Once the court's March 20 ruling is finalized, UC will have 60 days to file a notice of appeal, explains Christopher Patti, UC's attorney. The appeal could then take as long as a year to resolve.

In the Kashmiri case, Vazquez says the university used short-term fee increases for current students to finance the awards it had to pay out to former students. Whether that is the case this time is up to the Board of Regents, he says.

"We don't know," Vazquez answers when asked about how the struggling UC system will finance this penalty. "It really is the Regents' decision of what to do."

The UC system already is facing a more than $630 million funding gap for the 2010-2011 school year, and mid-year student fee increases of 15 percent for graduate professional students and 2.6 percent for graduate academic students in 2009-10 already have been proposed. Other planned fee increases include a 15 percent jump in student fees for all students in 2010-11 and 7 to 22 percent increases in professional school fees.

If the university decides not to appeal the court's decision, or if the appeal fails, students who stand to gain from the class-action suit would be notified by attorneys for the plaintiff or by the court about how to obtain the settlement. A class-action administrator likely will be appointed to distribute the funds, Patti adds.

Attorneys for the plaintiffs could not be reached for additional details by press time.