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A Leon County judge has rejected efforts to make FSU pay students for pandemic shutdowns

Masked students walk on the FSU Campus on September 13th, 2021.
Patrick Sternad
/
WFSU Public Media
Masked students walk on the FSU Campus on September 13th, 2021.

In one of a series of similar cases across the state, a circuit judge tossed out a potential class-action lawsuit that argued Florida State University should refund money to students because of a campus shutdown early in the COVID-19 pandemic.

Leon County Circuit Judge Layne Smith issued an 11-page ruling Friday dismissing the lawsuit filed by Harrison Broer, who was an FSU law student in spring 2020, when universities and colleges throughout Florida moved from in-person to remote instruction to try to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

The lawsuit contended that students should receive partial refunds of tuition and fees that they paid for on-campus classes and services. A key issue in the case was whether FSU breached a contract with Broer.

Generally, state agencies are shielded from lawsuits by the legal concept of sovereign immunity. But sovereign immunity does not provide protections from breach-of-contract claims. Smith, however, rejected Broer’s contention that FSU had breached a contract by shutting down the campus.

“Plaintiff and FSU did not enter into an express contract to provide services or in-person instruction from the spring semester in exchange for the payment of student fees. … Similarly, this court finds that plaintiff and FSU did not enter into an express contract to return payment of student fees or tuition under the circumstances pled, or to guarantee in-person instruction or a campus operated free from interruption,” Smith wrote. “To reach the conclusion urged by the plaintiff, this court would need to infer or imply terms that simply do not exist. Sovereign immunity does not permit such an exercise.”

Smith added that at “most, plaintiff and FSU had an implied contractual relationship, but more is required to defeat sovereign immunity.”

But in a May 2 court document, Broer’s attorney pointed to a “very clear chain of documents through the application, acceptance and registration process that create an express agreement.”

“The marketing materials and advertisements defendant (FSU) sends directly to every applicant and makes publicly available promise students an on-campus and in-person educational experience and services, and these are material terms of the express agreement plaintiff and his fellow class members made with defendant when deciding to attend FSU by paying thousands of dollars each semester,” Broer attorney Joshua Eggnatz wrote. “However phrased, defendant’s arguments, if accepted, would be no less than carte blanche for colleges and universities to do as they please, when they please, with their students’ tuition money and fees so long as they disclaim any responsibility for their actions and the harm those actions visit upon others.”

The lawsuit, filed in May 2021, is one of numerous similar cases playing out in Florida and across the country. Florida judges have taken different positions on whether schools could be required to refund money to students.

As an example, the 1st District Court of Appeal is scheduled to hear arguments July 20 in a potential class-action lawsuit that contends the University of Florida should refund fees to students who were forced to learn remotely. The university went to the Tallahassee-based appeals court after Alachua County Circuit Judge Monica Brasington refused to dismiss the case.

Also, the 2nd District Court of Appeal on June 1 refused to dismiss a potential class-action lawsuit against the University of South Florida. In contrast, the 3rd District Court of Appeal in April rejected a potential class-action lawsuit against Miami Dade College.