August 12, 2022

A lawsuit over a Florida university's response to the pandemic can go forward

An appeals court Wednesday refused to dismiss a potential class-action lawsuit against the University of South Florida over fees that were collected from students for on-campus services that were not provided because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The USF case is one of numerous lawsuits in Florida and across the country stemming from campus shutdowns early in the pandemic. The ruling Wednesday by a panel of the 2nd District Court of Appeal centered on whether USF breached a contract with student ValerieMarie Moore.

USF argued that the case should be dismissed because of sovereign immunity, a legal concept that helps shield government agencies from lawsuits.

The appeals court upheld a Hillsborough County circuit judge’s refusal to dismiss the case, though it said its ruling was “without prejudice to USF's right to again raise the defense of sovereign immunity if supported by the facts.”

A key issue in the case is whether an “express written contract” existed between USF and Moore, according to the ruling.

“When the state enters into a contract authorized by general law, the defense of sovereign immunity will not shield it from litigation,” said the 13-page ruling, written by Judge Darryl Casanueva and joined by Judges Craig Villanti and Suzanne Labrit. “When the Legislature has authorized a state entity to enter into a contract, it clearly intends that the contract be valid and binding on both parties.”

The ruling said that based on language in a registration agreement, Moore “entered into a legal, binding contract with USF.”

It said USF argued that, even if such a contract existed, it had not promised to provide specific services in exchange for student fees.

“Therefore, it contends, Ms. Moore cannot establish that USF breached a provision of the contract,” the ruling said. “We conclude that the trial court correctly rejected this argument at this stage of the pleadings.”

Campuses in Florida and across the country shut down in 2020 to try to prevent the spread of COVID-19. The USF case, like others, involves fees that students paid for services — not tuition.

An amended version of the lawsuit filed last year in Hillsborough County said Moore was a doctoral student in USF’s College of Education.

Courts have taken differing stances on whether colleges and universities breached contracts when they required students to learn remotely to try to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

As an example, the state’s 3rd District Court of Appeal in April rejected a potential class-action lawsuit against Miami Dade College over fees collected from students in 2020. Meanwhile, an Alachua County circuit judge in October refused to dismiss a potential-class action lawsuit against the University of Florida. That case is pending at the 1st District Court of Appeal.

Tags: News Service of Florida

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