Alderman v. Colorado State University.
2023 COA 61. No. 22CA1140. Colorado State University System Board of Governors—Temporary Suspension in Case of Fire, Fatal Diseases, or Unforeseen Calamity—Contracts—Quantum Meruit—Unjust Enrichment.
June 29, 2023
In spring 2020, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, most buildings at Colorado State University campuses were closed, students were required to leave its campuses, and classes were changed from in-person to online. The campuses remained closed at least through the end of the spring 2020 semester, and the university did not reimburse students for tuition or fees paid for the spring 2020 semester. Alderman filed a putative class action complaint against the Colorado State University Board of Governors (CSU) alleging that it breached its contracts to provide in-person learning for which she paid tuition (claim 1) and to make available the facilities for which she paid fees (claim 3). Alderman alternatively alleged that CSU’s failure to refund her tuition and fees resulted in CSU’s unjust enrichment (claims 2 and 4). In its first order, the district court granted CSU’s motion to dismiss the breach of contract claims pursuant to CRCP 12(b)(5) but denied dismissal of the unjust enrichment claims. In its subsequent order, the district court granted CSU’s motion for judgment on the pleadings as to the unjust enrichment claims, thus terminating the case.
On appeal, Alderman argued that the district court erroneously dismissed the breach of contract claims because she contracted with CSU for in-person learning for which she had paid tuition and for use and benefit of the facilities for which she had paid fees. By operation of law, the contract necessarily included applicable statutes, including CRS § 23-30-111, which provides that CSU may temporarily suspend a university, as relevant here, if fatal diseases are prevalent. Here, the COVID-19 pandemic involved a highly contagious and deadly virus and was thus a fatal disease as referred to in the statute. Further, closure of the campuses for the remainder of the spring 2020 semester was “temporary” as contemplated by the statute under these circumstances. Accordingly, the district court did not err by applying the statute to find that Alderman did not plausibly allege that the contract was breached.
Alderman also argued that the district court erroneously dismissed the unjust enrichment claims. A party may recover on a claim for unjust enrichment when the party will have no right under the express contract, such as when the express contract failed. Here, while CSU had authority to close campuses to void any contractual obligation to deliver in-person services, it does not necessarily follow that CSU had the right to retain the tuition and fees that Alderman paid pursuant to the contract, or that it was entitled to judgment as a matter of law. CSU’s contract obligations were obviated when it invoked the statute, leaving Alderman with no contract rights to enforce. Accordingly, Alderman’s only recourse to enforce her rights is through her alleged unjust enrichment claims. Therefore, the district court incorrectly entered judgment on the pleadings as a matter of law.
The order dismissing the breach of contract claims was affirmed. The order granting judgment on the unjust enrichment claims was reversed and the case was remanded for further proceedings.