By Jim Saunders
An appeals court Wednesday considered whether to allow a potential class-action lawsuit that contends the University of Florida should return fees to students because of a campus shut down early in the COVID-19 pandemic.
The university went to the 1st District Court of Appeal after an Alachua County circuit judge refused to dismiss the case. It is one of numerous similar lawsuits in Florida and across the country seeking to recoup money for students who were forced to learn remotely in 2020.
Robert Sniffen, an attorney for the University of Florida, argued that the case should be dismissed because of sovereign immunity, a legal concept that generally protects government agencies from liability.
“To describe a university as this heinous entity, that it was extracting money from students, is insane,” Sniffen told a three-judge panel of the Tallahassee-based appeals court. “The university was bending over backward trying to move instruction online because of a worldwide pandemic.”
But Adam Moskowitz, an attorney for plaintiff Anthony Rojas, said UF students paid fees for transportation, health care, and athletics services that were not provided because of the shutdown. The lawsuit seeks refunds of money from those fees, not tuition.
Moskowitz said students were required to pay the fees or they couldn’t enroll. He said if students refused to pay, “There is no doubt … they’re kicked out of the school in two seconds. They’re not allowed to stay.”
A vital issue in the case is whether the university breached contracts with students by not providing on-campus services. While sovereign immunity generally shields government agencies from lawsuits, it does not provide protection from breach-of-contract claims.
Moskowitz pointed to the requirement that students pay the fees to be able to enroll as evidence of an “express contract” between Rojas and the university. He also said Rojas, a graduate student in 2020, has invoices from the university detailing the fees.
“I (Rojas) am paying for those fees. I didn’t get that, so I want a refund back,” Moskowitz said.
But Sniffen disputed that the fees guaranteed services, saying, for example, that transportation fees could be used for such things as repaving parking lots or buying buses.
“Those fees are designed for a whole host of things,” Sniffen said.
Judge Scott Makar, however, appeared to question that argument.
“The students are entitled to have something in return for what they’re paying, right, or not?” Makar said. “It sounds like you’re saying they get what they get.”
The judges also said they were only considering whether the case should be dismissed. If they reject the university’s request, the case would be sent back to the circuit court for a trial, where the sides likely would battle more fully about issues such as whether contracts existed.
It is unclear when the panel might rule, but other appeals courts have taken different positions on similar cases.
A 2nd District Court of Appeal panel on June 1 refused to dismiss a similar lawsuit against the University of South Florida. Meanwhile, the 3rd District Court of Appeal ordered the dismissal of a fees-refund case filed against Miami Dade College in April.
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