The University of Minnesota will pay more than $3 million to settle a lawsuit over whether students should have received larger reimbursements after the campus shut down during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic.
"It would have been a fascinating trial," Hennepin County Judge Laurie J. Miller told attorneys in a hearing Friday morning, when she approved the deal. "I think you hammered out a settlement that is ultimately fair to both sides."
Lawyers expect that roughly 54,000 students, the majority who have since graduated, will receive checks of $38 to $40 each, after attorneys' fees and other costs are deducted from the settlement.
"It may not be a lifechanging amount that they are going to receive in these checks," Miller said. "But it is not nothing either."
The settlement requires the state's flagship university to pay $3.25 million to students who were enrolled in the spring of 2020, plus about $110,000 in fees to cover the costs of processing checks.
In March 2020, when officials were beginning to declare COVID-19 emergencies in the United States, the university moved to online classes and instructed students to move out of campus housing. The university announced it would refund students $1,200 for unused housing and dining fees.
Two students — Steven Staubus and Patrick Hyatte — sued. Their attorneys argued in court fillings that the university's reimbursement was woefully inadequate, noting that students also had paid mandatory fees for other services and facilities they weren't able to access for nine of the 16 weeks in the semester.
The university and students reached a settlement about a month before the case was to go to trial. The university wrote in court documents that it denied any wrongdoing but wanted to settle the case to "avoid the expense, risk, exposure, inconvenience and distraction of continued litigation."
Ryan Stephan, an attorney representing the students, told the judge they had been able to notify more than 99% of the students who attended that semester and "there are zero objectors" to the settlement.
"We believe this is a good settlement," he said.
A notice sent to those who qualify for the payments said checks will be issued as soon as possible after the judge signs the order and a 30-day appeal window closes. If there is an appeal, payments could be delayed. Representatives for Analytics Consulting, a Chanhassen-based company serving as the settlement administrator, didn't immediately respond to messages.
The majority of the people who qualify for payments are recent graduates. But current student government leaders say they have been tracking the issue because it fits into a larger discussion about student fees.
Carter Yost, government and legislative affairs director for the undergraduate student government, doesn't qualify. He's a senior who began his studies at the U in the fall of 2020. The payments won't make a big impact in individual bank accounts, but Yost said, "The fact that there was a push for it in the first place demonstrates, I think, that difficulty that higher education is expensive and any of the fees that tack on to that can be difficult."