Studying Abroad from . . . Texas? Harvard Student Files Federal Breach of Contract Lawsuit Against CIEE

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Students Look for Refunds After Covid-19 Roils International Study Programs

Study abroad often happened minus the abroad part in 2020, as many organizations canceled programs due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Unfortunately, many of those enrolled in programs sponsored by the Portland, Maine-based Council on International Education Exchange (CIEE) may have not only had their programs canceled but were also unable to obtain a refund of the money paid.

In March 2020, Harvard University student Annie Zhao was abruptly sent home from the University of Amsterdam to spend the remainder of her semester of study abroad in front of a computer monitor in her Texas home. After being denied a refund of the $20,450 she paid for tuition, room and board paid, Zhao sued the study-abroad provider for breach of contract, but the federal district court in Maine dismissed her claim.

According to Zhao’s complaint, “None of the CIEE facilities, housing, activities, and experiences in Amsterdam are available to [Zhao] from her home in Texas. The same is true for all similarly situated Plaintiffs, compared to their study abroad locations. In addition, plaintiff’s opportunities for education, collaboration, and interaction are also limited in this online format by the difficulties of scheduling around multiple time zones.”

Zhao alleged that CIEE initially led students to believe that everyone would be reimbursed up to $500 to defray the costs of flying home early. However, when she contacted the company’s billing office to inquire about reimbursement, CIE had instituted a policy of reimbursing up to $500 only for airline change fees. Since she booked a completely new flight to return home, CIEE told Zhao that she would not be eligible for reimbursement.

CIEE operates in 63 sites across 42 countries, sends more than 15,000 American students to study, intern, and teach abroad annually, and arranges for more than 30,000 international exchange visitors to the U.S. The cost of a CIEE study abroad program falls between $15,000 and $25,000 per semester, about 25% for room and board.

According to Law.com, at least 200 class-action lawsuits have been filed since the spring of 2020 on behalf of study-abroad students seeking refunds. Although the defendants are primarily colleges and universities, the allegations raised are similar to Zhao’s case against CIEE.

The students argue that they should not be required to pay the same amount of money for online classes as they would for an in-person, on-campus experience. However, the schools say that the students failed to prove that, once in a virtual setting, a contract was actually breached.

According to the CIEE website, students can change or defer their programs if CIEE cancels or suspends the program before the published start date and can get a full refund up to their day of departure. Still, since Zhao’s program had already begun when the pandemic forced the cancellation and she could finish the class virtually, she was not eligible for a refund. Zhao contends that she simply didn’t receive the educational experience she paid for. With no “meaningful opportunity to interact with other cultures, faculty, or peers after CIEE canceled her program, completing some of her coursework by online instruction a few hours a week is a far cry from the immersive international experience of living and learning in Europe.” Zhao’s attorney Sigmund Schutz maintains that the contract Zhao signed allows for refunds, even though CIEE refused to provide her with one, comparing Zhao’s situation to “starting a stay at a Ritz-Carlton luxury hotel and being moved to a Motel 6.”

After Zhao appealed the lower court’s dismissal of her claim, the First Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston affirmed the lower court’s decision, finding that no refund was required CIEE canceled the program after it had begun and only those who could not finish their classes virtually were eligible for refunds. However, while some cases like Zhao’s have also been dismissed, judges in Michigan, Ohio and Florida have allowed some such claims to continue, which could reveal a growing trend, according to the Law.com report.

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