Judge halts some UC fee hikes

    An August court order has blocked about $15 million of fall fee hikes for some students at UC professional schools as part of a class-action lawsuit against the university system.

    Arguing that the tuition increases passed by the UC Board of Regents to offset state funding cuts violate a contract, the students “have demonstrated a substantial likelihood of success on the merits of their complaint,” San Francisco Superior Court Judge James L. Warren stated in a preliminary injunction.

    Calling the decision “unprecedented,” UC spokesman Hanan Eisenman said the university remained confident it would eventually prevail in the suit. Lawyers for the system have already filed an appeal to overturn the ruling.

    In the meantime, the university will send out adjusted billing statements to affected students and issue refunds to those who already made payments, he said.

    “We understand student concerns about the fee increases, but they are a product of the hardships facing the state,” Eisenman said. “The budget cuts have forced the UC to make very difficult choices about student fees.”

    The decision affects approximately 3,000 students, who were originally enrolled in one of the university’s law, medical or other professional schools in December 2002, when the lawsuit was first filed. UCSD has 250 medical and 25 pharmacy students, whose fees will be spared an increase of between $4,500 and $5,200, according to David N. Bailey, the deputy dean of the campus’ School of Medicine.

    The university will absorb the loss in revenue and operate at a deficit in hopes of recovering the money in November, when the lawsuit will go to trial, Bailey said.

    “Definitely, it’s a relief,” said Anupa Menon, a third-year student at Berkeley’s Boalt Hall School of Law and one of the first students to sign onto the lawsuit. “I was concerned about my level of debt after graduating. This definitely takes a load off of my shoulders.”

    Menon said she chose to attend the school because the state-subsidized university offered a better price than other private institutions. Had she known that the price would not last, Menon might have gone elsewhere, she said.

    The lawsuit argues that promotional materials in the school’s catalog promised that tuition would remain the same during the students’ entire period of instruction, a statement that attorneys for the students claim constitutes a binding contract between the UC system and the students in its professional schools. However, the university has said statements in the catalog were old and updated notices on its Web site waived any fee guarantees.

    In a technical decision last February, the judge ruled against the university and said the updated notices did not void the original promise of flat fees.

    Although it won’t help him personally, Berkeley law school graduate Mo Kashmiri said the August injunction forecasts a student victory in the suit that he originally filed. Unable to raise money to cover higher tuition and unwilling to take on more debt — he owed $120,000 upon graduation last spring — Kashmiri said fee hikes caused him to drop out of school for a semester and work to raise extra money. After coming back, he took on an unusually heavy course load to graduate quickly.

    While the class-action suit still carries his name, he believes the focus should be on the university’s failure to “stick to its promises.”

    “I know that it’s a time of budget cuts,” said Kashmiri, pointing out that salaries for new administrators have continued to increase. “But they can’t balance the budget on the backs of students. Students are being forced out because of the fee increases.”

    Should the students win, the university will have to refund all of the fee increases made after the students first enrolled, according to Danielle E. Leonard, one of the students’ attorneys.

    Because all of the money has been spent on UC expenditures, the university will either need a state bailout package should it lose — such help unlikely in the current budget crisis — or long-term loans to refund the money, Bailey said.

    The judge’s injunction did not address two other parts of the suit, which call for a refund of fee hikes for all UC students made in spring and summer of 2003, after the university sent out billing statements and accepted payments from some students.

    However, Leonard said she believes the students will prevail on all three counts.

    A Maryland law firm is also helping with the students’ case. The firm was unsuccessful in a similar 2003 suit when it represented students in a class-action against that state’s public university system.

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