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Appeals court poised to hear UF fees dispute

University of Florida

A state appeals court this month will wade into a dispute about whether the University of Florida should refund fees to students who were forced to switch to remote learning in 2020 during the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

A panel of the 1st District Court of Appeal is scheduled to hear arguments July 20 after an Alachua County circuit judge last year refused to dismiss the potential class-action lawsuit. At least two other state appellate courts have taken up similar cases from other schools — and reached different conclusions.

A key issue in the cases is whether schools breached contracts by not providing on-campus services in 2020 after students had paid fees.

The University of Florida disputes that an “express” contract existed with plaintiff Anthony Rojas, who was a graduate student in 2020. As a result, it contends Alachua County Circuit Judge Monica Brasington should have dismissed the case.

“None of the documents attached to the complaint (the lawsuit) expressly establish that UF is obligated to provide services at a certain place, in a certain manner, at a certain time, or even at all,” UF’s lawyers wrote in a brief at the Tallahassee-based appeals court. “To the extent Mr. Rojas and others had a unilateral expectation that the fees students paid during the semesters in question would guarantee the provision of certain services, or even that fees would be expended for services to be delivered during that semester — i.e., a ‘pay-as-you-go’ model — there is no evidence of mutual assent on that essential term. It is decidedly not an express promise on the part of UF as Mr. Rojas contended and as the circuit court found below.”

But attorneys for Rojas countered in a brief that UF “declares that students cannot bring claims against it for failing to provide the on-campus services for which students paid fees while maintaining that UF can put students into debt collections for failing to pay those very fees.”

“Put simply, UF asserts a contract exists when it wants to collect money from its students, but disavows that same contract when students seek refunds of fees they paid for unperformed services,” Rojas’ attorneys wrote.

The case involves fees for such things as activities, transportation and athletics, not tuition. Campuses were shut down across the state in spring 2020 to try to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Brasington did not issue a final ruling about whether UF should be required to refund portions of fees that students paid, but she refused to dismiss the case.

Generally, state agencies are shielded from lawsuits by the legal concept of sovereign immunity. But sovereign immunity does not provide protections from breach-of-contract claims. In arguing that it did not breach an express contract, UF contends the case should be dismissed because of sovereign immunity.

Numerous similar cases have been filed against other schools in Florida and across the country.

A panel of Florida’s 2nd District Court of Appeal on June 1 refused to dismiss a similar case against the University of South Florida. The university last week asked the full appeals court to hear the case or to request that the Florida Supreme Court resolve the issue.

Meanwhile, the 3rd District Court of Appeal in April ordered the dismissal of a fees-refund case filed against Miami Dade College. The South Florida appeals court last month rejected a request for a rehearing in the case.

Also, a Leon County circuit judge last month tossed out a similar case against Florida State University.

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Jim Saunders is the Executive Editor of The News Service Of Florida.