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Class-action lawsuit filed against Board of Regents

By Charlotte Hsu

July 27, 2003 9:00 p.m.

A group of eight University of California students filed a
class-action lawsuit against the UC Board of Regents on July 24,
claiming the UC breached contracts made with students when raising
student fees.

The plaintiffs allege that the university failed to give
sufficient notice of fee increases that affected students enrolled
for spring and summer terms.

If the court certifies the suit as a class-action lawsuit, the
eight named plaintiffs will represent other UC students who qualify
as unnamed plaintiffs. If successful, students would be refunded
fees paid for semesters during which the plaintiffs say untimely
fee increases were made.

The plaintiffs will also seek a preliminary injunction, which
would prevent the university from charging graduate students
enrolled before December 2002 for increased fees until the case is
settled.

Attorney Jonathan Weissglass, who is arguing on the
students’ behalf, said the university broke a contract to
graduate students when it raised professional school fees, after
promising those fees would not be increased for the duration of a
student’s enrollment.

In an effort to mitigate the effect of funding cuts to the
university, the regents voted in mid-July to raise graduate school
fees, along with other UC fees, by 25 percent starting this
fall.

“What we’re saying is breach of contract …
it’s like buying anything ““ after a price is agreed on,
the store can’t hike up the price,” Weissglass
said.

Jeff Blair, university counsel for the regents, said the
documents cited in the claim ““ “catalogues and other
publications” ““ do not constitute a binding contract
that would preclude the regents from raising fees.

“I don’t believe the fundamental principal on which
their suing is based on is meritorious,” he said.

John Alden, the only UCLA student who is a plaintiff in the
case, said he is suing the university for spring and professional
school fee increases because he was “shocked” at the
university’s approach to raising fees.

“Like any lawsuit for a breach of contract, it’s
important for professional responsibility to keep the regents
accountable,” said Alden, a law student.

The complaint filed by the plaintiffs cites a timeline that
indicates some students registered for spring semester courses and
paid spring semester fees before the end of December 2002. The
complaint states that students were not individually notified of a
fee increase for which they were billed in January 2003.

In addition, students who registered for summer courses were not
informed of increased fees until “the last second,”
Weissglass said.

The complaint states that “students had no prior warning
that the fees at which they had registered for summer courses were
subject to change after registration,” and they
“reasonably relied upon” the stated fees to plan their
finances.

Blair said California’s constitution gives the regents
authority to raise fees at their discretion, adding that he has
“defended successfully similar types of
challenges.”

In February 2003, students in Maryland filed a similar suit
against the University of Maryland, alleging that mid-year fee
increases constituted an illegal breach of student contracts. The
court ruled in favor of the university in April, stating that
documents plaintiffs cited in the case, which included registration
materials and bills, did not qualify as contracts.

Mo Kashmiri, a UC Berkeley law student who is a plaintiff in the
case, said filing suit against the regents was a last resort for
the students, who had e-mailed their complaints to the UC Office of
the President, only to be rebuffed.

Kashmiri added that the cost of attending Berkeley law school,
which was lower than that of other schools he considered, factored
into his decision to enroll there.

“I don’t know if I’m going to be in school
next semester. Most likely, I’m going to take the semester
off, work and come back. … Students and families need notice to
plan finances before they go to school,” he said.

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Charlotte Hsu
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