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Monday, December 04, 2023

Florida Supreme Court hears dispute about UF’s 2020 COVID-19 shutdown

A potential class-action case may be brought against UF

<p>COVID-19 graphic seen here.</p>

COVID-19 graphic seen here.

The Florida Supreme Court will review a case about UF returning fees paid to the university during the COVID-19 shutdown to students.

Anthony Rojas, a UF graduate student, filed the lawsuit against UF in April. The lawsuit seeks refunds of fees students paid for healthcare, transportation and athletic services the university failed to provide because of the shutdown.

The issue is a “question of great public importance,” according to the justices’ order.

The main focus of the lawsuit is if UF made a breach of contract when services connected to fees were not provided.

A divided panel of the First District Court of Appeal said the case should’ve been dismissed by the Alachua Circuit Judge. As a result, Rojas’ attorneys went to the Supreme Court in January.

In the First District, UF is protected from liability by sovereign immunity, Judge Rachel Nordby said. In this legal concept, agencies can endure breach-of-contract lawsuits even if it is shown the contract has been violated.

Nordby and Judge Lori Rowe expressed sympathy in their seven-page opinion.

“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,” they wrote.

The Supreme Court was asked to review the question of 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.”

In his dissent, Judge Scott Maker, who had been on the First District Court of Appeal and is now on the Fifth District Court of Appeal, wrote, “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.”

The UF case handles only the question of fees, not tuition.

This case is one of many similar cases throughout Florida and the country seeking compensation.

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Similar cases were brought against state appeals courts at Florida International University, Florida Atlantic University, Florida A&M University and Miami Dade College. The FAU and Florida A&M cases were appealed but are now on hold because of the UF case. The Florida Supreme Court declined the University of South Florida’s appeal Jan. 5.

Adam Moskowitz is a Coral Gables attorney representing Roja.

"We are not challenging the required tuition or the ensuing diploma, but all of these other charges that were physically impossible to take advantage of during the height of the pandemic,” Moskowitz said.

Contact Sally at Follow her on Twitter @sabrown_22.

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