University of Florida COVID-19 shutdown case goes to Supreme Court
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (WCJB) — A potential class-action lawsuit has gone to the Florida Supreme Court in a dispute about whether the University of Florida should return fees to students because of a campus shutdown early in the COVID-19 pandemic.
Attorneys for UF graduate student Anthony Rojas filed a notice this week that is a first step in asking the Supreme Court to take up the case. The move came after a divided panel of the 1st District Court of Appeal in November said an Alachua County circuit judge should have dismissed the lawsuit, which seeks refunds of fees paid for transportation, health care and athletics services that were not provided because of the shutdown.
The UF case is one of numerous similar lawsuits filed across the state and country after students were sent home from campuses in 2020 to try to prevent the spread of the virus. Classes were held online.
The notice, which was posted Friday on the Supreme Court website, does not detail arguments that Rojas’ attorneys will make. But it said the 1st District Court of Appeal ruling “expressly and directly conflicts with the decision of another district court of appeal on the same question of law.”
Florida’s 2nd District Court of Appeal last year refused a request by the University of South Florida to dismiss a similar potential class-action lawsuit filed on behalf of student ValerieMarie Moore. The Supreme Court on Jan. 5 declined to take up an appeal by USF.
As another example of conflicting court decisions on the issue, the 3rd District Court of Appeal dismissed a similar case involving Miami Dade College.
In the UF case, Rojas has alleged that the university breached a contract when it did not provide services linked to the fees. But in the 1st District Court of Appeal’s Nov. 22 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 a seven-page 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.”
But 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.
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