Court rejects UCF COVID-19 shutdown lawsuits

UCF, University of Central Florida in Orlando by JillianCain via iStock for WMNF News (2020).

By Jim Saunders ©2023 The News Service of Florida

TALLAHASSEE — Adding to a series of similar rulings across the state, an appeals court Friday rejected two lawsuits alleging the University of Central Florida should be required to refund money to students because of a campus shutdown early in the COVID-19 pandemic.

A panel of the 6th District Court of Appeal turned down arguments that UCF breached contracts by not providing on-campus services funded by student fees.

Students Sara Goldstein and Shaunna Wilson were the named plaintiffs in the potential class-action lawsuits. Friday’s decisions only gave a detailed explanation of the Goldstein case, saying a circuit judge dismissed it based on sovereign immunity, a legal concept that helps shield government agencies from liability.

Under sovereign immunity, agencies can face lawsuits if it is shown that contracts have been breached. But the appeals court said “Goldstein’s complaint incorporates no such documents containing express terms requiring UCF to provide on-campus or in-person services in exchange for the fees.”

“We are mindful of the effects COVID-19 had on the loss of certain college experiences for thousands of students across the state,” said the eight-page ruling, written by Judge John Stargel and joined by Judges Carrie Ann Wozniak and Jared Smith. “We are also mindful of the additional responsibilities at state institutions of higher learning to accommodate the health, safety, and education needs of their students during the pandemic. There is simply no basis for us to ignore sovereign immunity in this matter, and UCF has taken no action requiring us to apply the breach of contract exception.”

The UCF lawsuits were among numerous cases filed against colleges and universities in Florida and across the country after campuses were temporarily shut down because of the pandemic, forcing students to take classes remotely. Many of the lawsuits have focused on seeking refunds of fees that students paid for such things as transportation, health care and athletic services that were not provided because of the shutdowns.

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

Amid the swirl of cases, the state Supreme Court said last month it will hear arguments in a lawsuit filed by University of Florida graduate student Anthony Rojas. The 1st District Court of Appeal ruled in favor of UF in that case.

But one exception has been a class-action lawsuit filed against the University of South Florida by student ValerieMarie Moore. The 2nd District Court of Appeal last year refused a request by USF to dismiss the case, and the Supreme Court on Jan. 5 declined to take up an appeal by USF.

Hillsborough County Circuit Judge Darren Farfante this month certified the USF case as a class action.

In Friday’s ruling in the Goldstein lawsuit against UCF, the 6th District Court of Appeal drew a distinction with the University of South Florida case.

“Unlike the instant (Goldstein) case, Moore proffered documents including student registration agreements that stated, ‘By clicking ‘Submit Changes’ below, I am entering into a legal, binding contract with USF’ and incorporated university publications and registration policies that could include express promises to provide specific services in exchange for the payment of tuition,” Stargel wrote.

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