After a series of similar rulings, an appeals court has rejected a potential class-action lawsuit that students filed against Florida International University because of a campus shutdown early in the COVID-19 pandemic.
Named plaintiffs Rebecca Alexandre and Sarah Fagundez alleged a breach of contract because FIU collected fees for services that were not provided during the shutdown. Students were required to pay health, athletics, transportation and student-activity fees.
But a panel of the 3rd District Court of Appeal overturned a Miami-Dade County circuit judge’s decision and ordered dismissal of the case. A key issue was whether the school was protected by sovereign immunity, which generally shields government agencies from liability. Agencies can face lawsuits if it is shown that contracts have been violated.
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“We are mindful of the myriad ways in which the COVID-19 virus negatively impacted our society, and the difficult choices individuals, businesses, and governments were forced to make,” Wednesday’s ruling, written by Judge Alexander Bokor and joined by Judges Thomas Logue and Bronwyn Miller, said. “But our task here consists only of determining if the documents presented by Alexandre (the named plaintiffs) evinced an express, written contract obligating FIU to provide specific services or access to campus in a specific time, manner, or place. Reviewing the record, constrained by statute and binding precedent, we conclude that Alexandre failed to meet her burden to show an express, written contract overcoming the general rule of sovereign immunity for governmental entities.”
The FIU 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. After the pandemic hit in 2020, campuses throughout Florida and the nation were shut down and students were forced to learn remotely.
The 4th District Court of Appeal in late April rejected a lawsuit filed by Florida Atlantic University students. Meanwhile, 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 has 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.
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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.
A footnote in Wednesday’s FIU decision said the University of South Florida case “arguably relies on specific — and different — documents to determine if an express, written contract exists.”
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