Appeals court denies USF ‘sovereign immunity’ motion to dismiss COVID-19 fees lawsuit
USF fails to prove sovereign immunity in a dispute over tuition refunds. Image via WUSF.

This may test a recent law aimed at shielding colleges from such legal action.

Second District Court of Appeals Judge Darryl Casanueva has ruled to continue hearing a class action lawsuit filed by a University of South Florida (USF) student against the school for failing to offer partial tuition refunds to students after canceling in-person classes because of COVID-19.

In a ruling released last Wednesday, Judge Casanueva declined the state’s motion to dismiss the suit on the grounds of sovereign immunity, allowing the lawsuit to continue.

“When the state enters into a contract authorized by general law, the defense of sovereign immunity will not shield it from litigation,” the ruling states.

Casanueva noted the “terms and conditions” of the student registration agreement contained “a promise by USF to provide any specific services in exchange for the fees it charged students.” And, when the Legislature authorizes a state entity to enter into a contract, “it clearly intends that the contract be valid and binding on both parties.”

While the decision does not provide a verdict on the case itself, it could lead the state to use a different defense.

USF doctoral student Valerie Marie Moore filed the suit back in March 2021. In her initial complaint, she argues that despite moving most classes online as a COVID-19 precaution, officials at USF did not refund any of the fees students paid for on-campus services during that time.

As a result, Moore filed the suit to seek damages on behalf of all students who paid fees to USF for on-campus services in 2020 or 2021 but did not receive the full benefits, alleging a breach of contract in the class-action claim.

The proposal aims to protect higher education institutions from cases just like Moore’s, as well as others filed in Florida stemming from COVID-19-related impacts.

Kelly Hayes

Kelly Hayes studied journalism and political science at the University of Florida. Kelly was born and raised in Tampa Bay. A recent graduate, she enjoys government and legal reporting. She has experience covering the Florida Legislature as well as local government, and is a proud Alligator alum. You can reach Kelly at [email protected].


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