Students should receive on-campus payment refunds, lawsuit contends.
Alachua County, Florida, Circuit Judge Monica Brasington will not dismiss a case that could turn into a class-action lawsuit alleging the University of Florida (UF) should refund fees owed to students who were forced to learn remotely due to the the coronavirus pandemic. The lawsuit, originally filed in April of this year, seeks prorated refunds of activity fees, transportation fees, and athletics fees. It is not seeking tuition refunds.
Brasington issued a nine-page ruling allowing the plaintiff, Anthony Rojas, to bring a breach-of-contract claim against the university. Many other similar lawsuits filed have been against universities across the state of Florida. Rojas was a graduate student at UF in spring and summer 2020 who had paid tuition and fees, including those that are of concern in the suit. If certified as a class action, the case should include thousands of students who were unable to not take in-person classes, or be on campus at all, last year.
Adam Moskowitz, a Coral Gables attorney representing Rojas, said, “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. Some states like Georgia already agreed to reimburse such specific funds.”
In asking for the lawsuit to be thrown out due to a breach-of-contract claim, attorneys for the university disputed that an “express contract” existed, writing in a motion filed over the summer that Rojas had provided a “hodgepodge of documents that did not constitute an express contract.” They added, “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. 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.”
As for the claim of sovereign immunity, which shields government agencies from lawsuits, Brasington was unmoved by their argument. She wrote in her decision, “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.” Moreover, she wrote, “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.”
Rojas’ attorneys included the “financial liability agreement,” a tuition statement and a fee schedule, as evidence of fees paid for which Rojas should receive a refund. “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,’” they said.