Appellate court overturns temporary injunction in school reopening lawsuit

The trial judge overstepped his authority in his ruling, the panel rules.
A student arrives by bus on the first day of school before the start of classes at the entrance of Gulf High School on Monday, Aug. 24, 2020, in New Port Richey.
A student arrives by bus on the first day of school before the start of classes at the entrance of Gulf High School on Monday, Aug. 24, 2020, in New Port Richey. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
Published Oct. 9, 2020|Updated Oct. 9, 2020

On the day Florida’s final school district reopened its doors, an appellate court threw out the temporary injunction aiming to stop in-person classes from happening.

Saying the Florida Education Association and other plaintiffs didn’t meet the requirements for an injunction, a panel on the 1st District Court of Appeal tossed it out on Friday.

But even if the requirements were met, “the trial court exceeded the constitutional limits of its authority by rewriting the Commissioner’s order,” Judge Lori Rowe wrote in the ruling, referring to a school reopening order by Florida education commissioner Richard Corcoran.

In the original case, Leon County Circuit Judge Charles Dodson found the Department of Education “essentially ignored the requirement of school safety” when ordering schools to open for face-to-face instruction. He said the state order could become constitutional if portions were stricken, and then revised the language in his ruling.

He also issued an injunction preventing the state from forcing schools to reopen.

Related: School reopening lawsuit: Judge rules in favor of Florida teachers

But Dodson’s approach didn’t work for the appellate panel.

“The trial court’s revision required DOE to grant funding waivers to school districts and to allow school districts to offer online instruction outside the programs authorized by the legislature,” Rowe wrote. “But the trial court had no authority to direct the executive to act in a specific manner when the Constitution and statutes provide for discretion.”

Beyond that, the court ruled that the plaintiffs lacked standing to bring the case — a question that had been repeatedly raised throughout the deliberations.

It further found that the courts did not have authority to insert itself into political questions, a similar stance to when the Florida Supreme Court turned down a lawsuit challenging the Legislature’s school funding system.

“[T]he State showed that its decision to issue the Emergency Order and provide a plan to reopen schools required it to consider education policy, public health policy, economic policy, and emergency management policy. Such complex decision making and policy judgments are far beyond the authority of the judiciary,” Rowe wrote.

Andrew Spar, president of the Florida Education Association, said he found it ironic that the ruling came on the same day Broward County began in-person classes, the last district in the state to do so. The decision also came on the final day of the state’s official student count for funding purposes.

Schools reopened after the state’s appeal of the trial court decision triggered an automatic stay of the temporary injunction.

“This really feels like the clock was running out on us,” Spar said.

But he added that the case is not over, and the concerns raised by the plaintiffs still exist. Though Dodson’s temporary injunction was overturned, Spar said, the underlying request for an injunction remains. And coronavirus cases continue to arise in schools, with parents not fully informed by the state, he added.

“We think the appellate court got it wrong,” Spar said.

The union later announced it would ask for a rehearing of the case by the full court, noting the three-judge panel did not hold oral arguments before ruling.

The case could have a longer reach than the immediate reopening question, observers have said. When completed, it could provide additional guidance on whether school districts or the state government has authority to make operational decisions about local schools during emergency situations.

A spokeswoman for the Department of Education said the administration was reviewing the ruling and was not ready to comment.

Corcoran and others have long predicted this outcome, calling the case frivolous.