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Judge clears way for lawsuit over UF's COVID shutdown

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A judge has refused to dismiss a potential class-action lawsuit that contends the University of Florida should refund fees to students who were forced to learn remotely last year because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Alachua County Circuit Judge Monica Brasington issued a nine-page ruling Monday that cleared the way for the university to face a breach-of-contract claim. The case is one of numerous similar lawsuits filed against universities and colleges across the state.

The named plaintiff, Anthony Rojas, was a UF graduate student in spring and summer 2020 who paid tuition and fees. If the case is ultimately certified as a class action, it could affect tens of thousands of students who could not take in-person classes or participate in campus activities last year as UF tried to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Attorneys for the university argued, in part, that the case should be dismissed because of sovereign immunity, a legal concept that generally shields government agencies from lawsuits.

But Brasington wrote that “when a governmental entity enters into an express, written contract that is authorized by the powers granted to it by the Legislature, it waives its sovereign immunity.”

“It is the court’s finding that, at this stage of the litigation, plaintiff has adequately (pleaded) the existence of an express contract between himself and UF in which plaintiff agreed to pay fees in exchange for specific services to be provided by UF during the spring 2020 and summer 2020 semesters, in accordance with (a section of state law), and its corresponding regulations,” Brasington wrote.

The lawsuit, filed in April, seeks pro-rated refunds of such things as activity fees, transportation fees and athletics fees. It does not seek tuition refunds. In addition to the breach-of-contract claim, Rojas’ attorneys also alleged “unjust enrichment” by UF --- though Brasington dismissed that allegation.

"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,” Adam Moskowitz, a Coral Gables attorney representing Rojas, said in a prepared statement. “Some states like Georgia already agreed to reimburse such specific funds."

In seeking dismissal of the breach-of-contract claim, attorneys for the university disputed that an “express contract” existed between UF and Rojas. In a June motion, they wrote that Rojas had provided a “hodgepodge of documents” that did not constitute an express contract.

“There is no contract between plaintiff and UF, let alone an express contract, thereby dictating dismissal of plaintiff’s breach of contract claim based upon sovereign immunity,” the motion to dismiss said. “Plaintiff’s request that this court accept various documents from multiple sources to arrive at an enforceable express contract does not comport with applicable law.”

But Rojas’ attorneys pointed to documents such as what is known as a “financial liability agreement,” a tuition statement and a fee schedule.

“UF’s main argument is that plaintiff ‘cobbles together’ various documents to allege an express contract and that this is insufficient to show a ‘meeting of the minds.’ In Florida, however, any one document, or even several documents together, may constitute an express contract so long as they show an ‘offer, acceptance and consideration,’” Rojas’ attorneys wrote in an August document