UCF’s Lawsuits for Pandemic Shutdown Rejected by Court

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – In a continuation of a trend seen throughout the state, the University of Central Florida (UCF) has successfully defended itself against two lawsuits demanding refunds for students due to the campus shutdown during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic. On Friday, the 6th District Court of Appeal dismissed the claims that UCF had violated contracts by not providing on-campus services financed by student fees.

Sara Goldstein and Shaunna Wilson, both students, had filed the potential class-action lawsuits. However, the court only provided a detailed explanation of the Goldstein case in its ruling. According to the court, the lawsuit was dismissed by a circuit judge on the grounds of sovereign immunity, which is a legal principle that protects government agencies from being held liable.

While agencies can face legal action if it is proven that contracts were breached, the appeals court stated, “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.”

The eight-page ruling, authored by Judge John Stargel and supported by Judges Carrie Ann Wozniak and Jared Smith, acknowledged the impact of COVID-19 on college experiences but emphasized the importance of sovereign immunity in this matter. The court noted that UCF had taken no action that would warrant the application of the breach of contract exception.

The UCF lawsuits were part of a wave of similar cases brought against colleges and universities in Florida and across the country, sparked by temporary campus closures due to the pandemic. Many of these cases sought refunds for fees paid by students, including transportation, healthcare, and athletic services that were not provided as a result of the shutdowns.

Florida’s appellate courts have consistently ruled against such lawsuits, defending institutions such as the University of Florida, Florida International University, Florida Atlantic University, Florida A&M University, Miami Dade College, and the private University of Miami.

However, there is an exception to this pattern: the class-action lawsuit filed by ValerieMarie Moore against the University of South Florida. The 2nd District Court of Appeal refused to dismiss the case last year, and on January 5th, the Supreme Court declined USF’s appeal. Hillsborough County Circuit Judge Darren Farfante recently certified the USF case as a class action.

In the Goldstein lawsuit against UCF, the 6th District Court of Appeal drew a distinction from the University of South Florida case. The court highlighted that Moore had presented documentation, including student registration agreements stating the existence of a legally binding contract with USF. These agreements incorporated university publications and registration policies that may have included explicit promises about specific services in exchange for tuition payments, a factor absent in the Goldstein case.

As the legal battles regarding refunds for college services continue, the state Supreme Court announced last month that it will hear arguments in another high-profile case: a lawsuit filed by Anthony Rojas, a graduate student at the University of Florida. The 1st District Court of Appeal had ruled in favor of UF.

In a landscape marked by complexities and variations in legal outcomes, the question of whether students are entitled to refunds for disrupted college experiences remains a subject of ongoing and contentious debate.

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