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Florida justices now weigh in on a UF campus shutdown case

A statue of a gator appears outside of Heavener Hall at the University of Florida in Gainesville Fla. A University of Florida researcher and an unspecified number of students have been implicated in an illegal scheme investigated by the Justice Department to fraudulently buy biochemical products that were delivered to a UF laboratory over seven years before they were illegally shipped to China, according to federal court records. (Brooke Johnson/ Freshtake Florida)
A statue of a gator appears outside of Heavener Hall at the University of Florida in Gainesville Fla. A University of Florida researcher and an unspecified number of students have been implicated in an illegal scheme investigated by the Justice Department to fraudulently buy biochemical products that were delivered to a UF laboratory over seven years before they were illegally shipped to China, according to federal court records. (Brooke Johnson/ Freshtake Florida)

The state Supreme Court weighed whether a University of Florida graduate student could seek to require the school to refund money for services that were not provided during a COVID-19 campus shutdown in 2020.

In one of numerous similar lawsuits in Florida and across the country, the state Supreme Court on Wednesday weighed whether a University of Florida graduate student could seek to require the school to refund money for services that were not provided during a COVID-19 campus shutdown in 2020.

Attorneys for student Anthony Rojas went to the Supreme Court after a divided panel of the 1st District Court of Appeal rejected a potential class-action lawsuit stemming from fees that students paid for services such as transportation, health care and athletics.

The appeals court ruled that an Alachua County circuit judge should have dismissed the lawsuit because UF was shielded by sovereign immunity, a legal concept that generally protects government agencies from liability.

But a key issue is whether UF breached a contract with Rojas. Under sovereign immunity, government agencies can face lawsuits if it is shown that contracts have been breached.

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Douglas Eaton, an attorney for Rojas, characterized UF’s argument Wednesday as “we don’t actually have to do anything for the money you paid us.”

“I don’t think it’s extreme to ask that someone be bound to their contract, to say that when you are paying for a service that’s specifically delineated for a specific purpose, that you receive something in exchange for that,” Eaton said.

But Joe Jacquot, an attorney for UF, said an “express contract” did not exist and that the appeals court properly ordered dismissal of the lawsuit. Jacquot said, for example, that the university could use fees in ways other than providing direct services to students, such as for capital-outlay projects.

“The relief he is seeking is (for) on-campus-only services during the spring and summer 2020 terms,” Jacquot said. “Is there any possible other use of those fees in the contract? And the answer is, of course. The statutes give all kinds of other uses of the fees.”

Justices asked numerous questions of attorneys on both sides and likely will take months to issue a ruling. If the court sides with Rojas, it would allow the lawsuit to move forward — not decide the underlying merits of the case.

UF and other schools across the country temporarily shut down campuses in early 2020 after the start of the pandemic. They continued to offer classes online, and Rojas’ lawsuit does not seek tuition refunds.

“I don’t think it’s extreme to ask that someone be bound to their contract, to say that when you are paying for a service that’s specifically delineated for a specific purpose, that you receive something in exchange for that.”
Douglas Eaton, an attorney for Anthony Rojas

Chief Justice Carlos Muniz raised an issue during Wednesday’s hearing that UF’s regular online students do not pay the same fees that on-campus students pay. But he said all students went online during the shutdown, with the students who would otherwise study on campus still responsible for the fees.

“It doesn’t seem implausible to suggest that something that a student would have rationally thought they were bargaining for just isn’t being provided. And the question is who’s going to bear the brunt of that. Is it going to be the student or the school?” Muniz said. “And I think that’s a very complicated merits question. But I don’t know as far as just, did they allege that we had an agreement, and have they alleged that there was a breach, I don’t know why that isn’t enough to get past at least the sovereign immunity hurdle.”

As another example of issues raised during the hearing, Justice Charles Canady said many students might not use services that are funded with the fees.

“Isn’t it the reality that, for instance, for the health fee, many students may never get any benefit from that because they’re not sick,” Canady said. “They don’t access the services, they don’t want the services. They’ve got something else that they access.”

“But it’s available to them,” Eaton responded.

“I understand that,” Canady said.

“It wasn’t available to them here,” Eaton said.

“But they don’t have a choice about whether they pay it,” Canady said. “They may have great health insurance but they’ve still got to pay it, right?”

“That’s correct, but they get a service in exchange for it if they want it,” Eaton said. “Here they did not. Here they paid something and they received nothing in return. And that is a breach of contract.”

Like in the UF case, Florida appellate courts have issued a series of rulings rejecting lawsuits filed against schools including the University of Central Florida, Florida International University, Florida Atlantic University, Florida A&M University, Miami Dade College and the private University of Miami.

At least some of those cases have been appealed to the Supreme Court, where they were put on hold pending the outcome of the Rojas case.

One exception has been a class-action lawsuit filed against the University of South Florida. The 2nd District Court of Appeal refused a request by USF to dismiss the case, and the Supreme Court last year declined to take up an appeal by USF.

Copyright 2024 WLRN Public Media

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