Vandenberg v. Aramark Educational Services, Inc.Annotate this Case
Students and former students of the University of Alabama, Auburn University, and the University of Alabama at Birmingham, filed three separate class-action lawsuits in the Jefferson Circuit Court challenging the legality of so-called "dining-dollars" programs implemented by the universities and pursuant to which all undergraduate students were required to pay a mandatory dining fee each semester, which was then credited back to the students in the form of "dining dollars" that could be spent only at on-campus dining outlets controlled exclusively by the food-service vendors for the universities - Aramark Educational Services, Inc., at UA; Compass Group, USA, Inc. (Chartwells) at Auburn; and Sodexo, Inc., at UAB. The trial court dismissed the three actions, and the students appealed. The Supreme Court consolidated the appeals for the purpose of writing one opinion and affirmed all three. The students sued the boards of trustees governing the universities and the food-service vendors, alleging that the dining-dollars programs violated: (1) state antitrust laws; (2) the Alabama Constitution inasmuch as it forbids the State from having an interest in a private enterprise; (3) the rule in 16-1-32(d) barring universities from charging excessive transaction fees to merchants that accept university-issued debit cards; and (4) the common-law prohibition on conversion. Because the boards of trustees are entitled to state immunity pursuant to section 14 of the Alabama Constitution, all claims against them were properly dismissed. The university administrators and foodservice vendors were entitled to immunity on the asserted antitrust claims as well, albeit state-action immunity as opposed to state immunity. Moreover, because the students lacked standing to pursue a cause of action for a violation of 16-1-32(d), and because the students did not and could not allege the necessary elements of a conversion claim, the trial court also properly dismissed the students' other claims.