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Washington State News

Sorority Must Provide more than $500k in Relief for Housing Fees it Unlawfully Charged UW Students During COVID-19

OLYMPIA — Attorney General Bob Ferguson today announced that Alpha Omicron Pi, a national sorority, must refund or waive the housing fees it unlawfully charged dozens of University of Washington students during the COVID-19 pandemic. The sorority charged thousands of dollars in housing fees in 2020 and 2021, even though COVID-19 prevented the students from accessing sorority housing — a violation of Gov. Jay Inslee’s emergency eviction moratorium.

The Attorney General’s Office learned of the case after 13 UW students complained to Ferguson’s COVID-19 eviction moratorium enforcement team.

In a declaration in support of Ferguson’s case, one student wrote, “It did not feel fair that I would be required to pay for the bills of the chapter house when I could not live there… At the time, I lived paycheck to paycheck and worked part-time jobs on top of my classes. I was not the only person in a tight financial situation. I knew other sisters who lost their retail jobs during the pandemic as well. But whenever we raised these health and financial concerns with our alumni advisors, we were told to focus on ‘sisterhood.’”

Under the consent decree, a legally enforceable document filed in King County Superior Court, the sorority must refund and/or waive the unlawful housing fees. The sorority must notify the students within 30 days that they no longer owe the sorority the unlawful housing fees charged during the 2020-2021 academic year.

Alpha Omicron Pi has since closed its doors, however, the sorority charged at least 68 students the unlawful housing fees. If a student paid any amount of the unlawful charges, they will receive full reimbursement. The Attorney General’s Office will contact eligible students about their reimbursements. Students will receive full reimbursements and/or waivers for any unlawful housing fees the sorority assessed against them from spring quarter 2020 through the 2021 school year — a total of more than $500,000 in relief.

The Attorney General’s Office will distribute the refunds as soon as possible after reviewing the sorority’s invoices. If you were charged unlawful housing fees and have questions about the reimbursement process, please email the Attorney General’s Office Civil Rights Division at AOIISettlement@atg.wa.gov.

“This sorority took advantage of students, charging them thousands of dollars for housing they could not access or use,” Ferguson said. “Alpha Omicron Pi’s actions were clear violations of the protections put in place to protect Washingtonians from the spread of COVID-19. Thanks to the students who spoke up and brought this to our attention, the sorority must cancel or refund these unlawful fees.”

Alpha Omicron Pi, a Tennessee-based sorority, owns the “Greek Row” house used as housing for the UW chapter members. The UW chapter house can house approximately 80 members. It includes a “porch room,” a large, open room with 24 bunkbeds, and smaller suites with space for four or eight women.

In January 2021, Ferguson filed a lawsuit asserting that the sorority’s demands for housing payments, threats and late fees violated the emergency eviction moratorium. The governor’s emergency moratorium specifically prohibited landlords from charging housing-related fees to residents when the COVID-19 pandemic resulted in those residents losing access to the property. The governor’s moratorium also prohibited property owners like Alpha Omicron Pi from threatening to refer individuals who are unable to pay rent to collection agencies, and blocked owners from charging late fees for past-due rent.

Despite the governor’s moratorium, the sorority charged students a housing fee of $6,250 for the 2020–2021 school year. Alpha Omicron Pi also charged members late fees, ranging from about $3 to $75, for each month they did not pay, even though late fees were clearly prohibited under the governor’s moratorium. One member incurred over $200 in late fees for the fall and winter quarters.

Alpha Omicron Pi’s invoices for the housing charges threatened students with suspension of their sorority membership and referral to debt collections — implying they could face lasting damage to their credit history if they did not pay. Dozens of students received past-due notices that read: “Should your account continue to remain past due, you will be responsible for late fees incurred, and you may face other consequences including International Probation, Member Suspension, and your account being sent to collections.”

The Attorney General’s lawsuit asserts Alpha Omicron Pi’s charges and late fees violated the emergency moratorium, which from April 2020 to June 2021 included moratoriums on charging for housing that a resident is unable to access as a result of COVID-19.

Alpha Omicron Pi’s national chapter was told by local staff about Gov. Inslee’s moratoriums. Because of that, Alpha Omicron Pi also violated the Washington Consumer Protection Act when it assessed fees it knew to be prohibited by the moratorium and threatened loss of membership and referral to a debt collector. The Consumer Protection Act prohibits tactics designed to unfairly pressure consumers or misrepresent consumers’ rights.

Assistant Attorneys General Ashley McDowell, Mitch Riese, and Yesica Hernandez with the Wing Luke Civil Rights Division, and Susan Edison with the Bankruptcy and Collections Unit, along with Legal Assistant Allie Lard and Investigator Jennifer Treppa handled the case for Washington.

Ferguson created the Wing Luke Civil Rights Division in 2015 to protect the rights of all Washingtonians by enforcing state and federal anti-discrimination laws. Ferguson named the division for Wing Luke, who served as an Assistant Attorney General for the State of Washington in the late 1950s and early 1960s. He went on to become the first person of color elected to the Seattle City Council and the first Asian-American elected to public office in the Pacific Northwest.