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Appeals court backs FAU in students' challenge to COVID shutdown

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Florida Atlantic University

The class-action lawsuit is one of numerous cases filed in Florida and other states alleging that colleges and universities breached contracts and should be required to refund money to students.

As the Florida Supreme Court considers a similar case, an appeals court Wednesday rejected a class-action lawsuit that Florida Atlantic University students filed because of a campus shutdown early in the COVID-19 pandemic.

The FAU lawsuit is one of numerous cases filed in Florida and other states alleging that colleges and universities breached contracts and should be required to refund money to students.

But a panel of the 4th District Court of Appeal upheld a circuit judge’s decision to dismiss the FAU case, finding that the university didn’t have an “express, written contract” with the students named as plaintiffs, Amanda Heine and Jhayla Stready.

“Students concede they were permitted to enroll in courses at the university in exchange for paying their tuition and fees, which is FAU’s only express obligation found in any of the documents submitted for review,” sad the ruling, written by Chief Judge Mark Klingensmith and joined by Judges Dorian Damoorgian and Ed Artau. “No express contract was formed by the attachments to the complaint (lawsuit) regarding what students would receive in return for paying the statutorily mandated fees. In fact, nothing in the attachments establish any contractual agreement to hold in-person classes or provide on-campus services at all, even though that was certainly a reasonable — albeit unenforceable — expectation.”

The Florida Supreme Court is considering a case in which the 1st District Court of Appeal reached a similar conclusion in a potential class-action lawsuit filed against the University of Florida. Also, the 1st District Court of Appeal last week rejected a case filed against Florida A&M University, and the 3rd District Court of Appeal has turned down a case filed against Miami Dade College.

But the 2nd District Court of Appeal last year refused a request by the University of South Florida to dismiss a similar potential class-action lawsuit. The Supreme Court on Jan. 5 declined to take up an appeal by USF.

In Wednesday’s ruling in the FAU case, the appeals-court panel drew a distinction with the University of South Florida case. It said a document in the University of South Florida case included “different language” than documents in the FAU case.

After the pandemic hit in 2020, campuses throughout Florida and the nation were shut down and students were forced to learn remotely. Many of the lawsuits filed in Florida and across the country seek refunds of fees that students paid — and not tuition.

A key issue in the cases against Florida state universities and colleges involves whether the schools are protected by sovereign immunity, which generally shields government agencies from liability. Agencies can face lawsuits if it is shown that contracts have been violated.

Copyright 2023 Health News Florida

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