TALLAHASSEE — A split appeals court on Tuesday dismissed a potential class action lawsuit arguing that the University of Florida should reimburse fees to students due to campus closure at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The 2-1 decision by a 1st District Court of Appeals panel comes as a similar case is pending in Florida Supreme Court. The 2nd District Court of Appeals came to a different conclusion in this case, which was filed against the University of South Florida.
Tuesday’s ruling said an Alachua County circuit judge should have dismissed a lawsuit filed by University of Florida graduate student Anthony Rojas. The lawsuit sought reimbursement of fees paid for transportation, health care and athletics services that were not provided due to the closure.
Rojas alleged that UF breached a contract by not providing the services. But in a seven-page majority opinion, Judge Rachel Nordby wrote that “assorted documents attached to the complaint do not constitute an express written contract.”
Accordingly, she wrote that the UF is protected by sovereign immunity, a legal concept that generally protects government agencies from liability. Under sovereign immunity, agencies can face breach of contract lawsuits if contracts are shown to have been breached.
“We sympathize with Rojas and all other students whose on-campus experiences have been cut short and rendered non-existent by the university’s response to COVID-19,” Nordby wrote in an opinion appended by Chief Justice Lori. Rowe. “And if there was a sufficient contract attached to his complaint, we would uphold the trial court (decision not to dismiss the case) without hesitation. But without such an express written agreement…sovereign immunity prohibits action.
Judge Scott Makar dissented, pointing to a series of documents that Rojas’ lawyers included in the case, such as what is called a “financial responsibility agreement” and a statement of tuition and fees. fees for the 2019-2020 academic year.
Makar wrote that “the explicit language of the financial responsibility agreement, alone, characterizes the relationship between the university and its students as an ‘agreement’ that must be interpreted in accordance with Florida law”.
“There is little doubt that there is an enforceable written contract of some sort; otherwise, the university would struggle to collect tuition and service fees due to the lack of mutuality,” he wrote.
After the pandemic hit in 2020, campuses in Florida and across the country were closed and students were forced to learn remotely. This has spawned lawsuits by students at many colleges and universities seeking reimbursement of money paid for services that have become unavailable.
Tuesday’s ruling came about a month after the University of South Florida filed a claim with the Supreme Court in a potential class action lawsuit alleging the university breached a contract with student ValerieMarie Moore. A 2nd District Court of Appeals panel this year upheld a Hillsborough County circuit judge’s denial of a university’s motion to dismiss the case.
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As another example of conflicting opinions on the issues, the Florida 3rd District Court of Appeals dismissed a potential class action lawsuit against Miami Dade College regarding fees collected from students.
On Tuesday, Nordby, Rowe and Makar urged the Supreme Court to look into the matter. They took a step known as certifying a “matter of great public importance” to the Supreme Court.
This question asked “whether sovereign immunity prohibits a breach of contract claim against a state university based on the university’s failure to provide its students with access to on-campus services and facilities.”