A divided appeals court Tuesday rejected a potential class-action lawsuit contending that the University of Florida should return fees to students because of a campus shutdown early in the COVID-19 pandemic.
The 2-1 decision by a panel of the 1st District Court of Appeal came as a similar case is pending at the Florida Supreme Court. The 2nd District Court of Appeal reached a different conclusion in that case, which was filed against the University of South Florida.
The decision Tuesday said an Alachua County circuit judge should have dismissed a lawsuit filed by University of Florida graduate student Anthony Rojas. The lawsuit sought refunds of fees paid for transportation, health-care and athletics services that were not provided because of the shutdown.
Rojas alleged that UF breached a contract when it did not provide 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.”
As a result, she wrote that UF is shielded by sovereign immunity, a legal concept that generally protects government agencies from liability. Under sovereign immunity, agencies can face breach-of-contract lawsuits if it is shown that contracts have been violated.
“We are sympathetic to Rojas and all other students whose on-campus experiences were clipped short and rendered non-existent by the university’s response to COVID-19,” Nordby wrote in an opinion joined by Chief Judge Lori Rowe. “And if there were a sufficient contract attached to his complaint, we would affirm the trial court (decision not to dismiss the case) without hesitation. But without such an express, written agreement … sovereign immunity bars the action.”
Judge Scott Makar dissented, pointing to a series of documents that Rojas’ attorneys included in the case, such as what is known as a “financial liability agreement” and a statement of tuition and fees for the 2019-2020 academic year.
Makar wrote that the “explicit language of the financial liability agreement, by itself, characterizes the relationship between the university and its students as an ‘agreement’ that must be construed in accordance with Florida law.”
“Little doubt exists that an enforceable written contract of some sort exists; if one did not, the university would have difficulty collecting tuition and fees for services because of the lack of mutuality,” he wrote.
After the pandemic hit in 2020, campuses throughout Florida and the nation were shut down and students were forced to learn remotely. That has spawned lawsuits by students at numerous colleges and universities seeking refunds of money paid for services that became unavailable.
Tuesday’s ruling came about a month after the University of South Florida went to the Supreme Court in a potential-class action lawsuit that alleges the university breached a contract with student ValerieMarie Moore. A panel of the 2nd District Court of Appeal this year upheld a Hillsborough County circuit judge’s denial of a motion by the university to dismiss the case.
As another example of conflicting opinions about the issues, Florida’s 3rd District Court of Appeal rejected a potential class-action lawsuit against Miami Dade College over fees collected from students.
On Tuesday, Nordby, Rowe and Makar urged the Supreme Court to wade into the issue. They took a step known as certifying a “question of great public importance” to the Supreme Court.
That question asked “whether sovereign immunity bars 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.”